This article is part of a feature series exploring how the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures to prevent its spread are impacting the human rights of under-18s.
The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have spared children from the direct health effects of the virus but the crisis has affected their social and economic rights directly and indirectly beyond what we could have foreseen. And there’s no doubt that children who come from more vulnerable backgrounds will feel the long-term impact of the pandemic and the measures taken to prevent its spread the hardest.
Social and economic rights are crucial to ensure the fulfilment of basic rights like sustenance, housing, food, education, health, employment and freedom from discrimination. The enforcement of these rights is instrumental to properly respond to any economic crisis. But what are the challenges today to the fulfilment of these rights for children, and how can they be met during and after a pandemic?
Looking at the long-term risk
The Covid-19 pandemic has already exposed how things like unemployment, poverty and missing education can all give rise to other problems. For instance, recent estimates show that millions of children under 5 years of age risk suffering from wasting as a result of the socio-economic impact of the pandemic.
Migrant and displaced children are also a particularly vulnerable group during this crisis as they live in deprived urban areas or slums, overcrowded camps, settlements, makeshift shelters or reception centres, where they lack adequate access to health services, clean water, sanitation and access to nutrition.
According to UNICEF, 91 percent of the world’s children are also seeing their education interrupted, with girls and those relying on school-based nutrition programmes less likely to return when classrooms reopen.
Explaining why, Human Rights Watch says that “widespread job and income loss and economic insecurity among families are likely to increase rates of child labour, sexual exploitation, teenage pregnancy, and child marriage. […] As the global death toll from Covid-19 increases, large numbers of children will be orphaned and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.”
The impact of unemployment should not be underestimated. Millions of parents are already struggling to maintain their livelihoods, with the International Labour Organization estimating that 25 million people may lose their jobs and that youth, older workers, women and migrants will bear a disproportionate burden of the job crisis.
We’ve seen these issues before in the aftermath of events that led to higher unemployment and poverty, but the fact that they’re happening again this time around raises the question of whether structural reform can help.
Today more than ever, any action to end child poverty should look at the structures that create poverty. Masses of funding have been made available at national and international levels to recover from the economic crisis the Covid-19 pandemic has created, but how can they be allocated so that we don’t repeat the failures of past crises?
Bailouts: saving the economy through corporations
Government and corporation bailouts seem to be the go-to solution for the crisis, with the focus being on saving the economy instead of finding solutions to poverty and financial hardship.
Countries around the world have approved more than US$11 trillion worth of emergency measures, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and big businesses and multinational corporations are receiving the largest share of the bailouts.
Human rights groups say that this approach has put concerns for human rights in the shadows and replicated the responses to the 2008 financial crisis, weakening “labour protections…buil[ding] regressive tax systems and impos[ing] austerity on the majority while providing subsidised prosperity for the elite few.”
The Center for Economic and Social Rights has also highlighted that, as many governments are focusing on bailing out for-profit corporations, there’s a major risk that the crisis will even be used by commercial companies as an opportunity to expand their markets and profits, including in sectors like education, where major global IT players are positioning themselves.In fact, we’re already seeing how privatisation and commercialisation of education have increased during the 2020 pandemic. With mass school closures, commercial online educational tools have sprung up as “emergency respondents”.
So what kind of bailout could have social justice and human rights at its core? And is there room for children and young people in it?
Cash transfers: a people’s bailout
From a human rights perspective, the ultimate measure of any economic system or policy is its impact on people, particularly the most vulnerable. The rising critics of corporate bailouts have brought an old debate back to the table: Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is a regular government payment that each member of society receives equally, to guarantee basic costs of living and financial security for everyone. The supporters of this model go way back; for instance in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. supported “a guaranteed income” as a means of abolishing poverty.
A similar model has also been brought to the table: Universal Basic Services (UBS). Under this approach everyone receives free and unconditional access to basic services such as health care, education and transport, while other services like basic housing and nutritional programmes would only be accessible through an application process and restricted to those who need it the most.
But rather than being substitutes for one another, experts argue that UBS and UBI are both beneficial as “there is no contradiction between having some public quasi-universal basic services and a basic income”.
But these systems still face much opposition, especially towards UBI, on the basis that it would be too costly. In response to those who oppose UBI for this reason, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) explains that “the alternative will result in a greater surge in inequality, increasing social tensions that would cost governments even more and open countries to heightened risk of societal conflict”. The UN agency also adds that “a new social contract needs to emerge from this [Covid-19] crisis that rebalances deep inequalities that are prevalent across societies [and] UBI promises to be a useful element of such a framework.”
Cash transfers for under-18s
Even though the UBI model is based on the individual rather than the household, children are rarely expected to be beneficiaries of a regular payment. Almaz Zelleke, a political science professor at NYU Shanghai, believes in including children as recipients because “only basic income that goes to children, as well as adults, can actually eliminate the poverty of families with only a single parent, or a single earner.” In other words, if more members of a family beyond just the breadwinner receive a regular income, it can make the family more resilient to economic crises and the threat of job loss.
Similarly in a discussion with CRIN, Argentinian sociologist and teacher Santiago Morales explained the importance of giving children an income and the “recognition of the social contribution children make […] by having an income they can manage themselves”.
However, adults rarely give children’s capacities enough credit and the first argument against giving an income to children would probably be that they would waste it. According to Morales, this is a “typical adultist argument” because it’s based on the presumption that children lack capacity. But, he explains, “we need to distinguish between capacity and know-how… If children don’t know how to manage money, it’s because they haven’t been taught.”