The future with and beyond COVID 19 - a community view from Tanzania

by Mary Kabati – TAHEA Mwanza

Looking back to the beginning of 2020 in the communities where Tanzania Home Economics Association works, fishing families were looking forward to better fish catch seasons due to a decline in illegal fishing and farmers were looking forward to a good paddy harvest due to increased rains experienced towards the end of 2019. Even with the low maize harvest, paddy - being both a food and a cash crop – gave many families hope for breaking even.  Families were preparing children to go back to school in mid-January and whatever was saved at family level was for children’s schooling. Parents who participated in saving and lending groups had taken loans to facilitate children going back to school, hoping for better income due to increased fish catches and food production as forecasted in 2020. Children started their new year with smiling faces, new school uniforms, new exercise books and new school bags. The same smiles were on the younger children attending preschool classes and the even younger ones who were eager to go to a child care center. Teachers were also prepared to receive children in schools and early-learning and child care centers after a long end of the year holiday.

Suddenly, COVID-19 announcements were heard everywhere from the media and through word of mouth. Schools were ordered to close in March 2020. Parents and families were not ready for the news and panic was in the air things as started to change abruptly. One parent was heard saying “How am I going to repay the money that I took as a loan from my women's group? I thought that children going back to school would give me time to concentrate on my business, now I have to stay back home to take care of them.”  Another parent said “The older children will have to take turns to attend my vegetable stall as I take care of the younger children at home.”

Soon the impact was everywhere – people not being able to sell at the market, children not learning, families in distress. To date, parents have not recovered from the economic slowdown, their paddy has not fetched good prices, the fish catches are still low, the overall market for their commodities remains at a standstill. The learning gap in young children still exists and some will not make the transition to the next grade because they cannot meet their developmental milestones.

COVID-19 not only deprived children of learning continuity, which is one of the key factors in quality education, but it has deeply challenged the resource poor families who are unable to support young children’ needs in addition to learning. A stressed parent due to loss of consistent family income or loan repayment problems cannot provide adequate nutrition, health, security and safety to her or his child and this continues to impact the child each day and in the future. The inability of children to access learning opportunities during COVID-19 also brought a major gap to many children living in resource poor families, who were challenged by a lack of technology, food and income. Coming out of an economic crisis - even a personal one - takes years of hard work and the development of children in such circumstances is placed at grave risk. 

And the challenge has not gone away.

The impact of COVID-19 to me, was more than managing school closures and distance education to mitigate learning loss. COVID-19 is about daily lives of children and their families, their neighborhoods, their communities, their livelihoods, social services access, information, government response and how they cope with the pandemic. COVID-19 is affecting children and families differently as each family is unique and that uniqueness makes mass responses difficult to manage and not always appropriate. 

Investment in local community systems - focusing on families and communities - is one of the most critical things we can do at this time as we think of the long-term impact of COVID-19. Investing strategically in community systems will - in both the short and long term - translate into more sustainable incomes and local economic systems, more connected social structures such as health, and more supportive community structures that can help families thrive. When big organizations cannot travel and the interconnectedness of health, economic, social, educational and environmental systems is clearly on display in the face of COVID-19, we need investments that are based on local (not outside) systems and are contextual and culturally grounded.

The success and sustainability of any recovery is linked to the ability, agency and capacity of local actors to mobilize resources, provide valued services and advocate for and deliver programs and systems that are multi-faceted to address community, families and children’s challenges.

I urge philanthropists, grantmakers and donors that now is the time to change their ways of grantmaking if they have not already done so. To appreciate and value community action from inside (not outside) of the systems in which children and families live. To appreciate community organizations and value them as important institutions.

When we support local community organizations, we support local knowledge, local action and local agency. We ensure that communities can realize their own strengths and futures but also have continued access to support when they need it. We know that the challenges of nutrition, health, security and safety and economic strengthening of families were not borne out of the pandemic alone but now we can and must invest in local organizations - those who are well placed to provide timely support to families now and strength to continue into the future.

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