26 March 2020 - Global

Coronavirus is a devastating blow to children in poverty

A girl shows how to wash your hands in Mexico

COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, is now present in virtually every country on earth. Each at different stages of the pandemic, there is a sense of foreboding that for many, the worst is yet to come. As the number of cases in fragile contexts begins to rise, we are starting to see the impact this will have on the most vulnerable children in all communities across the world. 

Whilst the coronavirus has so far resulted in less severe cases among children, it can decimate their lives in a different way. The ‘physical distancing’ measures increasingly required to contain the virus mean parents are unable to work, as ‘business as usual’ is rapidly grinding to a halt across the world.  Meanwhile traditional care providers – schools and nurseries – have had to close.  Millions of children living in vulnerable communities in countries all around the world will suffer from the far reaching economic and social impacts of the measures needed to contain the pandemic. To avoid lasting damage to their future, we must act now - rapidly scaling up support for children whose families income is insecure and provide the social protection[1] they urgently need.  

When families that are already dependent on casual, low paid, or unstable work, lose their jobs or are forced to isolate because of the COVID-19 outbreak, they have little to fall back on.  They have few savings, but often debts, and cannot afford to stockpile food and other necessities. A break in income can have devastating consequences. For families in poverty, missing work directly relates to missing meals, making it hard to comply with government and health advice.

Many children around the world, including those displaced by conflict, live in vulnerable conditions, including in camps, informal settlements and on the streets.  For some, they will be taking care of younger children of relatives or will be relied upon to work, to bolster family incomes. Many will not be in a position to isolate or distance themselves from others or comply with basic hygiene measures, including simply washing their hands.  In many countries where there is no universal health care, the poorest are also unable to pay for testing or medical assessments, let alone treatment.  

The health, wellbeing and learning outcomes of millions of children globally was supported before the crisis through free school meals.  With UNESCO reporting that 130 countries have already implemented nationwide closures affecting 1.4 billion children, and numbers are rising daily, there is an urgent need for alternative provision. For many children these meals must now be provided at home, by caregivers already desperate to find the money to pay for care and basic necessities.   

Sadly, some homes are not always a safe haven, particularly in times of financial stress.  For children living with domestic abuse and gender-based violence, or those that suffer abuse directly, staying home can be a risk in itself.  Girls are especially vulnerable and we know that when normal support services are not available, they are at greater risk of unwanted pregnancy and early or forced marriage. Those of us who worked on the Ebola Crisis in West and Central Africa saw first-hand how quarantine can increase the risk of exploitation and abuse among poor children – and how many children, particularly adolescent girls, will struggle to return to school when the crisis ends. 

The poorest households – including those suddenly impoverished by this crisis – will need support to survive this shock, and ensure their most vulnerable family members – children, those with disabilities and the elderly – are protected.  They desperately need cash, and they need it now. 

This is why governments urgently need to scale up income support now.  Many countries have already taken actions to cope with this enormous challenge.[2]  This is a global crisis and requiring unprecedented national and international response efforts to both stop the spread of the virus – and its secondary devastation – everywhere. There is a need for a massive and rapid scale up, expanding existing schemes wherever practical and adding new ones.[3] Of course, checks and balances are needed – to protect the most vulnerable, manage risks, and ensure markets are functioning.

In fragile and conflict-affected states, or countries with less developed systems, there is a major role for charities, the UN and donors to support efforts to ensure the marginalised and deprived are protected. 

The lessons from this crisis will be many and far reaching.  Governments are rapidly learning the value of having inclusive social protection systems in place, which have some ability to flex in times of crisis.  Strong systems that are shock-responsive will ensure that when another crisis hits – be it another virus, an economic recession, or a climate-related catastrophe – countries can respond efficiently and effectively to safeguard the most vulnerable in society, including children. 

The Global Coalition to End Child Poverty, which Save the Children co-chair with UNICEF, aims to raise awareness about children living in poverty across the world.  Governments must take immediate actions to help poor families survive this global pandemic. But we believe that social protection measures to support vulnerable children must also continue after this crisis has passed if we are to achieve a world where all children can grow up free of poverty and deprivation.



[1] Social Protection is a word used for programmes, often government funded or supported, that exist to protect us from the shocks and risks we face throughout our lives. For example, child benefits help families afford the extra costs of bringing up children. Pensions and unemployment allowances support people when they can no longer work. 

[2] The OECD has set up a COVID-19 Digital Hub to share information and track the measures taken by OECD countries and Ugo Gentilini of the World Bank (@UGentilini) is tracking the use of social protection measures globally (see http://www.ugogentilini.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/global-review-of-social-protection-responses-to-COVID19.pdf).