COVID Experiences in the Context of a Challenged Economy

Data from the Ahlan Simsim Project in Lebanon

Written by Kate Schwartz, Duja Michael, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Lina Torossian, Diala Hajal, and Phoebe Sloane

August 19, 2020

We write with great sorrow regarding the explosion in Beirut on August 4 that has taken the lives of more than 170 people, injured thousands of others, and rendered hundreds of thousands homeless. To our partners, colleagues, and friends in Lebanon, we offer our profound sympathy, and our continued commitment to supporting the important work you do for your beautiful country.

The research we share below was conducted in the Akkar and Bekaa regions of Lebanon in early summer 2020, before the explosion. We share these findings to provide a snapshot at the time of how the COVID-19 pandemic and economic collapse in Lebanon have impacted Syrian refugee families of pre-school aged children and their teachers. We note that they do not reflect current economic, service provision, and well-being difficulties, which have likely been exacerbated both for host-country and refugee families in the wake of last week's tragedy.

Global TIES for Children
Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop

As schools and other in person gatherings shut down across the globe in the wake of COVID-19 this past winter, ongoing research plans likewise had to be either put on hold or quickly adapted to the new realities. In the case of Global TIES for Children’s collaborative pilot study with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Sesame Workshop on the Ahlan Simsim project to inform our evaluation of the Ahlan Simsim Preschool Healing Classroom (PHC) program in Lebanon, this meant postponing direct child assessments and classroom observations and moving survey data collection with teachers, teacher aides, and caregivers to a phone based format. It also meant that these surveys would no longer be capturing pre-pandemic realities. Indeed, in Lebanon, surveys would be capturing a confluence of the direct impacts of COVID-19 and deteriorating economic realities under which the Lebanese lira has steadily depreciated and inflation has skyrocketed. This deterioration predated the pandemic - protests against government corruption and a corresponding exodus of investors from Lebanese banks began in Fall 2019 - but it was also further fueled by it and the brunt of the economic collapse hit shortly after the pandemic did. As such, the two are fairly difficult to disentangle in terms of their influence on daily lives, and are both likely to disproportionately affect those already most vulnerable, such as the Syrian refugee families and their young children enrolled in an Ahlan Simsim PHC.

Collecting data shortly after these dual shocks presented a challenge - in that we were piloting measures that might perform differently at a time when schools and jobs were open, the larger economy was healthier, and feelings surrounding the rapidly expanding global pandemic were not so charged. It also presented an opportunity. Before beginning the phone surveys we worked with the IRC and Sesame Workshop to quickly add a series of questions asking respondents to reflect on how their answers to other questions may or may not have differed only months earlier. We present these findings here.


These data were collected as part of an ongoing practice, policy, and research partnership, Ahlan Simsim. Ahlan Simsim, which means “Welcome Sesame” in Arabic, is the groundbreaking program from Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) that delivers early learning and nurturing care to children and caregivers affected by conflict and displacement across the Middle East. Through a brand-new, localized version of Sesame Street and in-person direct services across Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, Ahlan Simsim reaches families wherever they are—from classrooms and health clinics to TV and mobile devices—with the vital educational resources that they need to thrive. This program, generously funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the LEGO Foundation, not only addresses immediate needs and builds a strong foundation for future wellbeing, but also has the potential to transform how the humanitarian system responds to crises around the world.

For more on some of what Ahlan Simsim has been doing to continue to serve children and families in the face of this pandemic, see this video.

Sample and Data Collection

Findings presented here stem from two different phone surveys, one for the teachers (n=36) and a selection of teacher aides (n=35) employed by IRC as part of the Ahlan Simsim PHC program and another for the caregivers of four randomly selected children in each of two classrooms taught by the teacher (n=283). 

Teachers in our sample range from 21 to 47 years old, with a mean age of 27; are Lebanese; and are all female. Two thirds have university degrees. Teacher aides range from 19 to 51 years old, with a mean age of 30; are Syrian; and include two male aides. Just under half have university degrees. Caregivers in our sample range from 19 to 48 years old, with a mean age of 30. All but three are Syrian, with all but four having been born in Syria. They left Syria between 2005 and 2019 with most leaving in 2012, 2013, or 2014. Caregivers are 97% female and 15% identify as the head of their household. Surveys of caregivers were conducted between April 27 and May 21 and surveys of teachers and teacher aides were conducted between May 27 and June 2. 

The format of our questions related to COVID-19 were largely follow ups to other topics (e.g., socioeconomic status, anxiety and wellbeing, sleep) asking if the above answers would have been different before the pandemic or if the past month is representative of the months preceding it. If the respondent indicated it was not representative or that answers would have been different, we asked for more details as to how so. These questions were open-ended, providing qualitative data.

As a note, Syrian refugees are not legally allowed to work in the formal economy in Lebanon. As such, job and income losses discussed below for teacher aides and caregivers - but not for Lebanese head teachers - likely refer to the informal economy. 


1. Most preschool teachers working with the Ahlan Simsim project in Lebanon continue to draw at least partial pay. They are not, however, unscathed by the current crises.

In many ways the teachers and teacher aides are faring better than others: 83% of teachers and 86% of teacher aides report still being paid either in part or full by IRC while classes were closed; 94% of teachers and 80% of teacher aides report their general health to be good; and 86% of teachers and 60% of teacher aides rate their general sense of satisfaction as good. 

This said, the median household income loss reported by both teachers and aides is 50% pre-pandemic income (with mean losses of 45% and 47% respectively), with many reporting that others in their household had lost jobs. A quarter of respondents (n=18), equally split between teachers and aides, reported either that their answers around their own health and satisfaction or their answers related to quality of sleep and symptoms of depression differed for the worse from what they would have been prior to the pandemic. These respondents highlight fear surrounding the virus, reduced work/income, increased costs, resource shortages, decreased stability, and the psychological toll of staying at home in indicating what had changed. The majority of these respondents as well as 2 additional teachers and 5 additional teacher aides also indicate declining food security due to high prices, high prices plus decreased income/job opportunity, or high cost of living more generally.

Responses include: “I was able to buy better food [before]... now everything is expensive”; “[our] family decreased food consumption due to the high prices and living difficulty”; “no jobs nor sufficient incomes”; “after corona, the prices increased a lot and my salary decreased”; and “we had more food before corona”.

A handful of teachers and aides also report decreased social support; missing work, teaching, and seeing other people; and it being difficult to effectively do their jobs in the face of the pandemic.

2. Caregivers report the economic situation going from bad to worse.

In speaking to caregivers, 55% (n=157) report a change in income since the coronavirus outbreak with the vast majority of those indicating some sort of complete job loss in their answers. Many of the same qualitative answers show up again and again here: “husband stopped working”; “there are no jobs”; “no work”; “stopped completely”; “incomes stopped”. Some caregivers further point out the situation was not great even before COVID: “there was little work before corona and after corona my husband lost his work completely”; “before corona the situation was very bad, but [my] husband could still find work from time to time during the day.”

A large number of caregivers also, or instead, highlight price inflation in discussing how their household income changed: “high cost of living”; “everything became expensive”; “I was left with no food for a certain period and work stopped, and the prices are high”; “deterioration of the Lebanese currency”; “husband stopped working, the markets closed, and high cost of living.” Finally, many report decreased income or work and others mention incurring debt as the situation has progressed: “private lessons stopped”; “decreased a lot”; “they decreased my son’s salary”; “have LBP 1000000 debt”; “I borrow money to buy what I need, husband stopped working.”

Fewer caregivers endorse changes that we might expect to move hand in hand with lost household income such as decreased living conditions, socioeconomic status, and food security. Qualitative answers suggest this may be due to living conditions having already been bad before the pandemic. Just over a tenth say living conditions have changed since the pandemic and 21% say their financial status (e.g., whether they consider themselves middle income, managing to get by with difficulty, or poor) and/or food security have changed since the pandemic. Among comments pertaining to these changes, many caregivers point out that the situation was already difficult: “The situation is always bad, but before corona, we were at least able to buy food”; “The situation was bad even before Corona”; “No one was working before Corona”; “There was no work even before Corona”; “The situation is going from bad to worse”; and, “It was difficult and now it’s more difficult.” Given a low enough baseline, categories such as if you are unable to buy enough food or what broader income bracket you would put yourself in may not have changed for many respondents even as incomes further decreased. 

Supporting this, for financial status we ask them to answer based on pre-COVID-19 income bracket before asking if the pandemic changes their answers. Almost half (45%) of caregivers report that they would have identified as poor and 41% as ‘manage to get by with some difficulty’ prior to the current crises. For food security we do not ask them about their pre-COVID-19 security, but the low levels of security and low endorsement of it changing suggest that regular access to quality food was likely already an issue prior to the recent increase in job loss and decreases in spending power. Nearly three quarters say they often (36%) or sometimes (37%) do not have enough to eat in their household. Only 1% say they have enough of the kinds of food they ideally want to be eating, suggesting that even those with enough food are making compromises in terms of nutrition in order to adequately feed everyone. These numbers are high even in the context of a country already struggling with food security.

3. Many caregivers report decreases in personal wellbeing.

A fifth of the caregivers also report that their general health and satisfaction has decreased and 17% report the last month as differing in terms of sleep, anxiety, and symptoms of depression. Reported reasons largely revolve around: i) decreased means (e.g., “before we were able to afford buying food, now we can no longer afford anything at all”; “because of the situation and the lack of money; “The last couple of months were very hard when it comes to expenses and the kids’ needs”); and, ii) increased anxiety, worry, and fear (e.g., “increased fear and horror”; “overthinking because of the responsibility of kids”; “psychological fatigue”; “I am very scared and my psychological date is bad.”). Some caregivers also mention changes in daily routines (e.g., “schools are closed”; “there is more pressure because husband is now at home”). One respondent reports a close family member’s death. 

We also asked caregivers if their feelings or practices around parenting have changed since the pandemic. Twenty (7%) say their feelings have changed, with all indicating a change for the worse. Three caregivers further specify that they fear they can no longer adequately care for their children. Others respond more generally, referencing fear, pressure, and “the situation”. 

Twenty-three caregivers (8%) report decreased social support in relation to having others they can go to for assistance. “No one helps anymore.” Eight (3%) report decreased trust since the pandemic began: “[I] went through some difficulties and sought the help of people close to [me] but no one helped”; “Whenever I go to someone, they frown in my face.”


4. Children’s daily life is likely being affected.


Nine caregivers (3%) identify changes in their child’s play due to no longer being able to go out. Most of these were not explicitly given negative or positive valence, although one caregiver did comment, “He's now inventing things he wasn't inventing before.”  Fifty (18%) mention changes in children’s media, music, TV, reading, or video habits with most mentioning increases in such activities due to more time being spent at home. Some caregivers report additional changes in food consumption and activities, but in specific relation to it being Ramadan at the time of the interviews. 

Fourteen caregivers (5%) identify changes (e.g., decreased patience, being harder on their child) in their own disciplinary practices. Half of these caregivers explicitly link this to the lack of kindergarten classes: “going to kindergarten was helping to improve the behavior”; “I was learning more from the teacher in the kindergarten”; and, “He was more disciplined in the kindergarten. Now because of boredom I can’t discipline him that much.”

5. It does not appear that the pandemic has changed the demand for early childhood education.

Almost universally, caregivers say they would resume preschool classes if they are reopened and caregivers are told that it is safe to resume (97%) and that they will re-enroll their child in the Ahlan Simsim PHC program next year (99%). Among those few who do not endorse resuming classes, only one directly mentions fear of the virus. Two mention concerns about the class itself (i.e., “the room where kids were put was very bad” and “because of the poor quality of the location, the lack of cleanliness, and safety”). These could relate to COVID-19, in that concerns around cleanliness may be a bigger concern now than before, but they also may not. Three report that they moved and are thus no longer nearby to the preschools and one caregiver says that the household can no longer afford transportation.

Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop


The situation in Lebanon is in many ways unique as a result of the confluence of local economic and political realities with COVID-19. That said, refugee families are feeling the impacts of COVID-19 throughout the region. To better understand the influence of this pandemic outside Lebanon, Global TIES and IRC conducted qualitative phone interviews with 31 caregivers in Mafraq, Jordan in June 2020. Caregivers were drawn from those with prior experience in Ahlan Simsim parenting programming. These interviews focus specifically on COVID-19 and how it has affected caregivers' financial wellbeing, parent-child interactions, and plans for the future. As such they should provide a rich, nuanced window into the impacts of COVID-19 in another corner of the Syrian refugee response region. The Global TIES and IRC Jordan teams are currently analyzing these data and will share the findings once analyses are complete. 

In the meantime, findings from Lebanon suggest that the current pandemic and accompanying economic crisis in Lebanon have turned already difficult realities into dire ones for many caregivers. In addition to very real concerns around providing basic needs for their families many caregivers are also personally struggling and feeling unsupported both in general and in relation to their children. Taken together, these findings point to a need for both concrete aid (food, money, resources) for these families and continued, and potentially increased, support surrounding child development and early childhood education. 

Toward the latter, everyone involved with Ahlan Simsim programming (IRC, Sesame Workshop, and Global TIES) hope that the COVID-19 situation will be such that early childhood education programming in Lebanon will be able to start as planned this fall. This said, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education haven't confirmed the opening of schools yet and current discussions suggest that schools this year are likely to use blended (in-person and digital) or digital approaches should COVID-19 cases in Lebanon continue to increase. Evidence from this pilot suggests that parents will welcome classes when they are able to re-open and that they likely need and would benefit from a wide range of support and services to help them in the meantime. Survey data also suggests that, in whatever format classes resume, teachers may themselves need additional support and resources given decreased household incomes and instability, as well as the increased needs of the families they are serving.

Special thanks to Rima Shahine, Alaa El Sheikh, and Caleen Rahbani as well as the team of IRC staff who stepped in as data collectors for all of their work in obtaining this data. Thank you as well to Kim Foulds at Sesame Workshop; Heidi Rosbe, Simine Alan, Marianne Stone, and Maria del Sol Prieto Bayona  from the IRC; and everyone on the communications committee and executive leadership team at Global TIES for providing feedback on this document and to the entire Ahlan Simsim team and the MacArthur Foundation for making this work possible.