Coronavirus has put over 850 million children around the world out of school; each child with a different home life, a different landscape in which they must now adapt to a global pandemic.
The UN warns of the increased risk children face in this new normal as instances of online predators, malnutrition, domestic abuse, and a widening education gap continue to increase.
In a statement released today, the UN Secretary-General outlined four specific areas of children’s lives most likely to be negatively impacted by COVID-19: education, food, safety, and health. To mitigate these risks, international agencies like UNICEF, WHO, and the World Food Programme are working together with in-country nonprofit partners to ensure children get the support they need.
Kevin Igihozo is eleven years old and out of school. He sits with his friend, notebook in hand, and listens to a radio broadcast of his school lessons. Supported by UNICEF, the Rwandan Education Board and the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency, students in Rwanda can tune in every day at 8:30am and 2:00pm to their radio classroom and work through units in-line with nationally approved curricula. Unfortunately, for many children, school closures have halted their education and exposed them to danger. Access to education is critically important during this crisis to ensure no child loses the opportunity to fulfill their potential.
“When I grow up I want to be a doctor,” says 12 year-old Maram who dropped out of school when her family was displaced in Syria. “I want to find the cures for all diseases and epidemics so all children can be safe,” she added. Now Maram is part of a UNICEF-supported Self Learning Program designed for children who cannot access formal education services. She learns Arabic, English, Math and Science at her home in Ar-Raqqa, saying “I’m glad I have a way to keep learning.”
“Many children get their only meal a day in schools,” emphasized Lola Castro, World Food Program (WFP) Regional Director for Southern Africa. Globally, almost half of all schoolchildren rely on school for regular sources of nutrition. “Now we’re trying to find solutions,” says Castro, for the 2.8 million children in southern Africa alone who no longer receive these vital school meals. Reaching these children is a team effort. WFP is developing programs to deliver these meals directly to families, UNICEF is working with children to deliver informal education materials at a household level, and WHO is distributing guidance on how to help children cope with stress and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Under the shadow of COVID-19, children’s online screen time has skyrocketed. “Not all children have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to keep themselves safe online,” said Howard Taylor, Executive Director of the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children. This leaves them vulnerable to online sexual exploitation, violence, and bullying. UNICEF and WHO, in partnership with other international agencies and nonprofits, are calling on governments to keep child protection services open and active to train social workers to respond to online threats. They have also formally requested the information technology industry to enhance safety measures, especially if engaged in virtual learning. “We must help them navigate this new reality,” said Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF.
As a result of social distancing, lockdown orders and repurposed infrastructure, many routine immunization campaigns have been paused around the world, leaving children especially vulnerable to the potential resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases. 117 million children risk missing out on the measles vaccine this year; immunization campaigns are delayed in twenty-four countries and canceled in thirteen. In 2018 alone, 140,000 lives were lost to measles–a disease that is entirely preventable with a safe and effective vaccine. Most were children and babies.
Amid the COVID-19 threat, UNICEF and WHO joined health partners in stating their support for continued vaccinations. While acknowledging the many demands on health systems and frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agencies maintained that “delivering all immunization services, including measles vaccines, is essential to saving lives that would otherwise be lost to vaccine preventable diseases.” UNICEF, WHO, and other critical immunization partners like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance will be pivotal in trying to restart immunization programs and play catch-up on covering potentially missed kids with life-saving vaccines.
Thankfully, children are spared from the most severe symptoms of COVID-19, but the challenges they now face are no less life-threatening.
“What started as a public health emergency has snowballed into a formidable test for the global promise to leave no one behind,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Concerned about the welfare of the world’s children, he is calling on leaders to cushion the impact of the pandemic, “protect our children and safeguard their well-being.”
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Photo Credit: UNICEF: Habib Kanobana, Rwanda and UNICEF: Allan Stephen, Samoa