Five ways this pandemic is worse for children than you think
The coronavirus pandemic is having a crippling effect on the global economy and the lives of children and their families. In West and Central Africa, a shocking 92% of families we work with are experiencing a food crisis, skipping meals and limiting their food intake.
As schools open and societies start to emerge from lockdowns, we are starting to see that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a profound impact on children’s lives for years to come. From violating children’s civic freedoms, the unequal and unfair distribution of access to healthcare, and a rising shadow pandemic of violence against children. Children are paying the price of this emergency.
1) Managing the pandemic at the expense of children’s rights
In 2021, the basic freedoms and human rights of people in countries like Myanmar, the Philippines, Russia, Hong Kong, China, Brazil and Venezuela, as well as in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, are being infringed with little accountability. According to CIVICUS Monitor, governments around the world, under the guise of responding to the global pandemic, are taking the opportunity to limit civic space and the work of human rights defenders and journalists.
Lockdowns across the globe have resulted in children’s rights to access basic services being violated. Has keeping children alive come at the expense of upholding their rights? The dilemma for decision makers is that those who are not in high-risk categories, such as children, are paying the price.
2) Almost 10 million children may not return to school
It is predicted that this unprecedented disruption to children’s education will result in almost 10 million children not returning to school once schools have reopened. This is an issue affecting vulnerable children everywhere, including in the US and Italy, children living in refugee camps and warzones, girls, and children with disabilities. While poverty continues to rise, children may be required to take on extra caregiving responsibilities or forced into child labour to help their families. Being out of school is one of the known drivers of violence against children, including child marriage, female genital mutilation, and child labour.
Yet without increased government investment to reduce barriers to learning for the most marginalised children, and commitments to ensure that all children are able to return to education, a generation of children face losing their education, with devastating impacts on their future potential.
3) Children’s lack of access to basic healthcare is causing long-term health impacts
Many countries we work in are facing the challenge of vaccine nationalism. While high-income countries have bought enough doses in advance to vaccinate their populations several times over, this is leaving fewer doses for low- and middle-income countries. We are calling on donors and governments to adhere to the World Health Organization/COVAX allocation framework to ensure global equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that children need to continue to receive regular life-saving immunizations as we work to roll out the COVID-19 vaccine.
In our global COVID-19 study, 89% of parent/caregivers reported lacking access to basic health services, and those in urban settings were worst affected. We know long-term health impacts such as malnutrition are compounded by this crisis, having treated around 400,000 children under the age of 5 for acute malnutrition in 2020. With increasing global food shortages, we see a rise in malnutrition and preventable diseases. In at least 70 countries, the provision of routine immunisation services is disrupted due to COVID-19, and is likely to affect approximately 80 million children under the age of one. This means preventable diseases like diphtheria, measles and polio could take hold again.
4) A crisis behind closed doors: the rise of violence against children
Children’s protection from harm, and maintaining their access to vital child protection and mental health services, should be central to any policies. We are seeing shocking increases in violence against children during lockdowns, with the length of school closures impacting the likelihood of violence against children, as caregivers under stress report increases of violent punishment in the home.[i] The long term impacts of a child experiencing or witnessing violence can drastically reduce their life expectancy, increase the likelihood of perpetrating violence in the future and can lead to mental health problems.
The majority of children (89%) interviewed in our Global study on COVID-19 reported an increase in negative feelings. However, the deprivation of children’s support networks, including peers, teachers, and social services, means children are less able to access support and violence is becoming less visible. We need to ensure the continuity of essential and reliable child protection services for all children, and we urge public decision makers to safely reopen schools.
5) The pandemic is increasing children’s digital divide
Whether it is children in Ethiopia not able to access radio, or children in the UK unable to pay for mobile data for remote schooling, this pandemic has worsened the impacts of digital exclusion. Girls, ethnic minorities, children with disabilities, and the poorest are hardest hit. Children with less chance of being online have less access to online learning resources and fall further behind in their education.
Building resilience into our recovery
Looking to the future, we must remember to put children’s needs first as we seek to build a more fair and equal world in our recovery from this pandemic. We have an opportunity to create a vision for education that goes beyond "simply catching students up", to a focus on students' readiness to build a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world. We have an opportunity for nations to invest in children and future generations; we are seeing the US and Malawi starting to implement social protection systems for children. We have an opportunity now to build cities that are green and sustainable; and to enable digital and online access for all.
Recovery from COVID-19 offers nations a chance to implement policies that will help build resilience and look toward a future that protects the planet, and its children.
[i] Our global COVID study showed that violence in the household was reported by children at over double the rate when schools were closed (17%) compared with when schools were open and the child was attending in person (8%). In this study, 1 in 5 (22%) parents/caregivers reported increase in their use of negative or violent parenting methods.