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Unmasking the impact of COVID-19 on Asia’s Most Vulnerable Children

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Executive Summary

We are facing a global health and economic crisis unlike any, since the second world war — one that is killing people, spreading human suffering, and turning people’s lives upside down.

But this is much more than a health crisis. It is a humanitarian crisis, and Asia’s children, especially the most vulnerable, are on the brink of severe hunger, increased disease, and physical and emotional safety risks. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is bringing societies to their knees, crippling their core.

World Vision (WV), in Asia Pacific, began its humanitarian response as COVID-19 confirmed cases continued to increase in China. As the virus spread across the region and governments started taking drastic public health measures to protect their citizens, WV found that children were among the most affected by the severe consequences of lockdowns and major economic contraction’ and scaled up its emergency response to include the 17 countries in the Asia Pacific.

To better understand the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on the lives of vulnerable children, in Asia, and better inform the journey ahead, WV conducted a Recovery Assessment, the findings of which are summarised in this report.

In Asia, children, especially those suffering from poverty and inequity, are among the most vulnerable to the harsh socio-economic impact of COVID-19. Over the already high rates of child malnutrition, physical abuse, and the lack of access to proper sanitation, existing before the COVID-19 crisis, the early recovery assessment analysis highlights, post-COVID-19, the vulnerabilities of children and their families, in Asia, has grossly been aggravated.

Families are now experiencing a devastating loss of livelihoods that in part has led to limited access to food, essential medicines and basic healthcare. The resulting economic, psychosocial, and physical strain on families has increased incidences of physical abuse, early marriage, and entry of children into exploitative work like child labour. Loss of jobs in urban areas has triggered mass migrations back to rural areas. This large movement of people, will not only pose as a health risk to the villages they return to, as they may unknowingly spread the disease, but also cause further strain on their families’ meagre income.

Some of the most significant findings from the assessment include:

  • More than 69% of parents/caregivers confirmed that their livelihoods were fully or severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Daily/wage workers, the largest segment of many Asian economies, are the hardest hit.

  • Loss of livelihood is the top-most concern for the rural and urban poor, which in turn negatively affects all the other aspects of child well-being including, access to food and nutrition, access to healthcare and essential medicines, access to hygiene and sanitation facilities, and child protection and safety. Further, 84% of urban respondents indicated that in the previous two weeks, they lost their job or experienced income reduction.

  • Coping mechanisms, as a result of the crisis, are diminishing core assets in 33% of households (HHs), impacting their recovery journey, and growing children's risk for increased malnutrition and lack of promising opportunities to secure their future.

  • The ripple effects of the economic impact on nutrition are demonstrably visible in 50% of the HHs, where they are opting for cheaper, more filling but less nutritious food.
    The reduction in quantity and quality of meals is particularly worrisome as all respondents reported a 19% reduction (23% reduction for urban respondents) in their average weekly food expenditures.

  • Access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene remains a challenge for almost 23% of all HHs surveyed, which increases the risk of malnutrition and spread of diseases, including COVID-19.

  • The gap in access to basic hospital services has drastically widened by 21% (29% for urban respondents); and the gap in access to community health centres has widened by 22% (29% for urban respondents).

  • Loss of livelihood is forcing parents and caregivers to take desperate measures that are negatively impacting children’s well-being. In Bangladesh, over 31% of children may be sent to beg or may engage in high-risk jobs and almost 2% are likely to be married off early.

  • 27% of parents and caregivers shared that the stress on families related to loss of income, lack of school, change of children’s behaviour during quarantine has contributed to children experiencing physical punishment and emotional abuse. However, 25% children (39% of children in urban areas) confirmed that caregivers had used physical or psychological punishment in the last month.

While many countries in Asia are easing or ceasing their lockdown measures, the region still faces a continuing economic crisis with high unemployment rates.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Asia is predicted to be at 0%, growth performance, in 2020 which is the worst in almost 60 years, including during the Global Financial Crisis (4.7%) and the Asian Financial Crisis (1.3%). The informal sector, which employs over half the workforce in many Asian economies, is the hardest hit. Informal workers, already among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, are being left out of many government recovery programmes. And with the economic impacts of the pandemic forecasted to linge until at least 2022, the road to recovery seems like a daunting task.

The crisis is threatening to erase the gains made, in recent years, in key Sustainable Development Goals related to child protection, education, and health and nutrition.

Based on the evidence from the recovery assessment, this report provides key recommendations for governments, international cooperation agencies and multi-lateral and implementing partners to address and respond to, at national and local levels, the urgent socio-economic needs of vulnerable children, their families, and their communities. Governments are called to focus on and invest in the families of the most vulnerable children, ensuring access to healthcare and child-protection services, nutrition, education and financial resources. International agencies and institutional donors are called to invest in and leverage faith-based responses and economic recovery programmes that put seed capital in vulnerable HHs. Implementing partners are encouraged to contribute to rebuilding HH resilience and provide psychosocial support.

This report is the first of many steps in the long road ahead to recovery and resilience. Our experience over the last seven decades has taught us that the human spirit is indomitable and child well-being is a matter of concern to parents. These are our greatest allies.

We have been entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that today’s children look ahead with hope. Let us not let their masks suffocate their vision for a brighter tomorrow.