The life of children is being changed in profound ways and they have been the biggest victims of pandemic. Measures taken by governments to contain and mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic are having persistent and far-reaching impacts on the lives of children in all countries. Children are experiencing considerable changes to their daily routine and social infrastructure, which ordinarily promote suppleness to challenging events. The mental health of children and young people is also unduly affected and easily overlooked in this swiftly changing situation.
One of the most glaring and controversial means by which Covid-19 has affected young children is a school closure. According to UNESCO, the education of nearly 1.6 billion pupils in 190 countries has so far been affected which is 90% of the world’s school-age children. A missed opportunity for learning is not the only concern due to school closure in this crisis, the more serious concern is; when schools are closed for longer periods, children will begin to forget what they already know – a regression much harder to redress. Provided that time spent in learning appears to shape adult IQ, this is believed to result in lifelong effects on the cognitive ability of young minds.
While governments are trying to encourage online schooling, that relies on a good computer or a smartphone and reliable internet connection to be able to access the classes, and a quiet room to study. Access to them is a huge issue for underprivileged children, further widening the attainment gap and also grinding academic development.
Immediate and universal loss of family income has amplified stress with many experiencing financial insecurity leading the families to be less able to afford life basics. This has also placed many out-of-school children at risk of child labor and child marriage. Many children, especially the most vulnerable are suffering violence and abuse-reports reveals.
Lockdowns are expected to widen the existing inequalities across the globe and the poorest will be hit hardest by all of these effects, with backlash for years to come. The disadvantaged children will be paying the greatest price as always, as they fall the furthest behind, and have the fewest resources available to ‘catch up’ once the pandemic threat elapse.
Every year, vaccines save an estimated 2 to 3 million lives, but with COVID-19 putting enormous pressure on already weak or overstretched health systems, the number of unvaccinated and under-vaccinated children is expected to increase. 80 million children younger than 1 year in at least 68 countries are now at risk of vaccine-preventable diseases.
A study conducted in 118 low and middle-income countries by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated the additional 1.2 million under-five deaths could occur in just six months due to reductions in routine health coverage levels and a 10% increase in child wasting.
Today, children are becoming more vulnerable to malnutrition due to the deteriorating quality of their food. The measures to combat pandemic have been disrupting food systems, overturning health and nutrition services, devastating livelihoods, and threatening food security. The efforts to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 like school closures have put those children at risk of malnutrition who rely on school meals for daily nutrition.
Social protection should be strengthened for children, especially those at the margins of society. Strong leadership and investments in the international, country, and local levels are needed to improve governance and to reduce the widened gap between rich and poor and also between developed and developing countries. Health and education systems need to become more equitable and resilient to respond effectively to crises.
Schools should reopen when it is safe to do so, and closing the digital gap has to be a basic priority in providing equal opportunities for children to continue learning, during the pandemic and beyond. For this, teachers can provide alternatives for work that requires a computer or internet connection and make sure the students can fulfill their tasks, even in deprived conditions.
Family members need to have clear and truthful conversations with their children about the emotions raised because of the pandemic because when the information is absent, children attempt to make sense of the situation on their own. Ignoring the underlying tensions and exposure to strange and uncertain behavior is sensed by children as a threat and it will only backfire. Things start getting better once everyone starts talking about the stresses and worries.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened child health and education, it can also be a catalyst to start afresh. Children’s rights must be central in the recovery phase and future planning, to regain lost ground and to accelerate progress towards a more equitable, resilient, and sustainable world for all.
Anjila is a former Paediatric Nurse at Chitwan medical college (CMC). She is currently a student of Masters in Public Health at CMC.
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