Adolescents’ experiences of Covid-19 in Sylhet and Chittagong
More than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, we have witnessed how it has not only caused a public health crisis across the globe but also brought us face to face with a myriad of socio-economic challenges. The pandemic has exposed the structural flaws and ineptitude of the modern world, even more so in the case of least developed countries like Bangladesh. Indefinite school closures and recurring nation-wide lockdowns have caused the country to come to a halt—slowing down the wheels of the economy and collapsing the education sector. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Bangladesh's economic growth rate was 8.2 percent in 2019 which dropped to 5.2 percent during the nation-wide lockdown in 2020, and resulted in increased poverty levels, particularly in rural areas. The Household Income Expenditure Survey (HIES) of 2016 revealed that even in the pre-pandemic context, 8.4 million households with school-going children were living below the poverty line. A nationwide survey conducted by SANEM in 2020 anticipates an additional 7.7 million households to fall below the poverty line as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, which would cause the total number of households with school-going children who are living below the poverty line to rise up to 16 million. Moreover, a quantitative study conducted by Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) on 2,095 school-going adolescents showed that adolescents' mental health has been adversely affected by the pandemic with 75 percent of adolescents feeling anxious or worried about Covid-19, and 80 percent reporting an increase in household stress since the advent of the pandemic.
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and UNICEF reports from 2019 demonstrates lesser secondary school outcome rates compared to the national averages—for lower secondary school attendance, which stands at 58 percent nationally, the rates in Chittagong and Sylhet divisions are 55 percent and 54 percent respectively; and the attendance rates for higher secondary school in Chittagong and Sylhet are 44 percent and 37 percent respectively, whereas the national average rate stands at 48 percent. According to a 2011 report of the
Education Watch, Sylhet division has lower performance in secondary education compared to other divisions of the country because of its unique geography and lack of educational facilities. In collaboration with World bank, the Bangladesh government is implementing a comprehensive Adolescent Student Program (ASP) in Chittagong and Sylhet regions with the aim to address adolescent-specific challenges, including high female drop-out rates in secondary school, and also to expand the most successful modules of the intervention to all schools by 2022.
Two renowned research institutes of the country, Brac James P Grant School of Public Health and Brac Institute of Governance and Development, thought that it is important to identify and understand in real-time the problems of school-going adolescents during this ongoing crisis. They conducted a qualitative study, funded by the World Bank and in collaboration with Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) programme—a UK-based mixed-methods longitudinal impact evaluation study—on the schools located in rural and urban regions of Chittagong and Sylhet. The study, titled "Adolescents' experiences of COVID-19 in Chittagong and Sylhet divisions, Bangladesh", collected data from 39 adolescents studying in 7th and 8th grades and 13 school teachers through interviews over the phone. The study collected data from a total of 20 schools and madrasas, with the aim to understand adolescents' knowledge about Covid-19 and to identify how the pandemic is affecting other aspects of their lives such as education and distance learning, personal and household income and livelihood, food security and nutrition, health and hygiene, mental health and coping, and voice and agency. The findings from the study were presented at a webinar titled "Adolescent Experiences in Chittagong and Sylhet: The Adolescent Support Programme and COVID-19 Impact" on May 24, 2021.
The study showed that most adolescents are aware of the basics of Covid-19 (symptoms and how it spreads) with urban adolescents having more specific knowledge about the virus than their rural counterparts. Some adolescents, however, had misconceptions about Covid-19 treatment which reflected the prevalence of misinformation in the communities.
Protective measures such as wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance were found to be practiced by most adolescents even after the lockdown was lifted. In response to the ongoing pandemic, increased emphasis on hygiene practices (e.g. washing and cleaning with soap and antiseptics) in households was reported by the adolescents.
Gender difference in terms of mobility restrictions was found as parents allowed adolescent boys to go out more frequently than girls. As a result of the new restrictions imposed by parents because of the pandemic added with the pre-existing gender differences regarding going out of the house, girls' mobility has been significantly curbed. "The girls in the family rarely go outside of the home. Only my father goes out regularly", said a 13-year-old girl.
Adolescents' education and learning were found to be greatly affected as their study hours have reduced and some of them, particularly rural adolescents, lack access to remote learning modalities (e.g., mobile phone, internet connectivity and TV). A girl attending grade 8 said, "I have stopped studying. How much can one study all by herself? Classes are held on television now. We don't have a TV in our home. Can you always go to someone else's house to watch TV? That's why I don't watch those TV classes. It is possible to watch YouTube [educational] videos on my father's phone but he doesn't stay at home all the time. So, the mobile phone is not available either." As a result, some adolescents are deprived from the benefits of government sanctioned televised lessons and distance learning measures, leading them to the risk of dropping out if school closures persist for a long time.
As a result of the continuous shutdown of schools and uncertainty around when schools will reopen, adolescents have become increasingly worried and anxious about exam results and the future of their education. All the adolescents shared being stressed and bored as they have not been able to meet up with their friends at school. "Now it has become intolerable. I have gotten extremely exhausted staying at home for so long. Actually, I miss school. Also, the kind of fun we could have at school, we can't have that at home, like meeting my friends," a 13-year-old boy said.
According to the study findings, families of adolescents with low and unstable income are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. It was found that some adolescents and their families are having to cut down their nutritional intake and reduce their daily expenditure to cope with the financial constraints.
Although the pandemic did not prevent most of the adolescents from visiting local doctors and pharmacists for non-Covid-related health issues, few adolescents reported obstruction in their health-seeking behaviour as a result of the social stigma and suspicion surrounding the people who visit doctors or hospitals. As a 15-year-old boy said, "I stay at home even when I have a cough and cold. I can't visit a doctor. If I say that I need to see a doctor, others doubt me, they think I have caught corona[virus]. Fearing such doubts, I can't go to visit a doctor." Moreover, due to the lack of local hospitals and clinics in rural regions of the country, some rural adolescents shared their difficulties in accessing healthcare services during the pandemic.
Based on the evidence from the study, some key priorities were proposed for policy and programmatic responses to mitigate challenges and recover from the crises faced by the most vulnerable adolescents and their households due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Urgently developing a plan and strategy by both government and private bodies to identify and address the educational gaps caused by the pandemic was suggested. Emphasis on raising awareness among service providers and policymakers about the impacts of pandemic on the mental health of adolescents was also proposed. Suggestions were made on the necessity to mitigate the immediate nutritional risks faced by the adolescents. Finally, it was recommended that the pre-existing online-based health services should be promoted further to the mass people to increase access to healthcare services, particularly in rural areas.
Samira Ahmed Raha is Research Assistant, Brac James P Grant School of Public Health.