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Annual parental barometer report shows the impact of coronavirus on families

Illustration picture shows an adult holding a girl playing in a playground in Brussels, Wednesday 27 May 2020. Many parents had to take time off or find alternative childcare during the first wave of the coronavirus crisis when the schools were closed. (BELGA PHOTO THIERRY ROGE)
10:15 16/12/2020

This year’s annual Parent Barometer report produced by the League of Families is unsurprisingly coloured by the experiences parents have had during the coronavirus pandemic. One of the most glaring results of the 2020 report is that seven out of 10 Belgian parents, 69% of those canvassed, feel that they have been failed by politicians during the crisis.

According to Christophe Cocu, the general manager of the League of Families, the measures and protection expected by parents were not sufficient and arrived too late. "We had imagined a coronavirus parental leave for the stay-at-home period,” he said, but it was actually put in place when the first restrictions were lifted. “So, they were actually three months too late."

The barometer shows a difference in the perception of difficulties according to the incomes of families. For vulnerable families, inadequate health measures in regard to family life (especially the functioning of social bubbles), organising care and home schooling for children during confinement, and the lack of support to cope with the financial difficulties due to the crisis were the biggest problems.

The digital divide made home schooling a particular issue for some vulnerable families, according to Cocu. "Some parents don't even have a permanent phone number," he explained. “Sometimes it's so expensive that they have to switch from one prepaid card to another and therefore change their phone number. It is impossible for schools to easily get in touch with them. As a result, some children have been cut off from contact with their school for months."

"We know that it is mainly the most vulnerable who have lost the most money in the coronavirus crisis,” he added. “People in precarious occupations or temporary workers who usually already earn less, found out they no longer had their jobs. So, either they were temporarily unemployed, or they were fully unemployed, either way, the impact was severe."

For more financially secure families, the issues were similar but placed in a different order of hardship. While organising care and home schooling was seen as the main challenge, it was followed by the lack of babysitting solutions as the second most mentioned issues and the inadequacy of sanitary measures to family life (especially the functioning of social bubbles) in third spot.

Cocu points out that for these families, the level of demand in school is traditionally higher. "Parents would have wanted their children to see new material, but this was not provided for by the Federation Wallonia-Brussels. For them, the interruption of learning was seen as a real loss for their children."

Combining telework and childcare when schools close has also posed many problems for more financially secure families, while the inadequacy of sanitary measures to family life is shared by all families. The functioning of social bubbles, reviewed many times, has been a problem for fragmented families, where calculations have often turned into a puzzle.

Apart from the coronavirus crisis, this year’s barometer focuses on other areas related to health in parental life.

The report shows that every second mother canvassed believes that a two-day stay in the hospital for the birth of their child is too short.

In all income categories, families find it difficult to pay a child's hospital bill. And more than one in four single-parent families postpone a child's medical check-up for financial reasons. Whether it's for a visit to a specialist, buying glasses or installing a dental device.

"When you go to the GP, you know you're going to pay between €20 and €30 and you know how much you're going to be reimbursed, even if you have to advance the money,” said Cocu. “Sometimes the family situation is already so complicated that it's already the first treatment that is postponed,” he explained. “But when you arrange an eye exam with the optometrist, for example, which is all the more expensive, it is complicated because you will also have to pay for the glasses after, even if you will be reimbursed via your health insurance. In fact, this system where it is the citizens who advance the money and then be reimbursed contributes considerably to the deferral of care."

In the event of a parent's serious illness, the barometer also shows that financial difficulties are on the agenda for half of the families surveyed. Two-thirds of families make sacrifices if a child becomes seriously ill.

"The parents' demands in these moments are to spend time with the sick child,” said Cocu. “Often, one of them stops working and the household loses a salary. Despite our social security system, which is one of the best in the world, a family can easily fall into a precarious situation because of an accident in life."

Now in its fifth edition after launching in 2015, the barometer shows that parents' demands have not changed much over the last five years. They still find it difficult to balance work and family life, nursery places are always insufficient, school daycare hours are too limited (or employers are too inflexible in relation to school hours), and alimony is always difficult to obtain by many single-parent families.

For Cocu, the problem is that the political world is not adapting quickly enough to the evolution of family models in Belgium. "We see here in two years, there are 7% more dads who want to have paternity leave as long as that of the mother. We go from 60 to 67%, it's huge. And here, after 18 years of fighting, we have just introduced a leave of absence from 10 days to 15 days and perhaps 20 days in 2023. So, we realise that society's expectations are much higher than the politicians understand."

The League of Families acknowledges that the tone of this 2020 barometer is a bit bleak but says that "naming the problems may already be a first step towards the solution."