The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented with the virus spreading in almost all countries in the world. In Africa, 54 out of 55 countries have reported at least one COVID-19 infection. Luckily for Africa, confirmed COVID-19 cases remain comparatively low, at 158,000 as of June 3rd; which is partly attributable to early and decisive action taken by many African governments as well as a youthful population. However,
COVID-19 pandemic has hit Africa not only as a health crisis but also as a devastating socio-economic crisis that may persist over the months and years to come. This policy paper underscores that, although children do not represent a high-risk group for direct COVID-19 fatality, the pandemic posts far-reaching secondary impacts that heighten risks to African children’s rights and wellbeing.
• The rapid spread of COVID-19 is overburdening the underresourced African health systems and disrupting routine health services that are likely to increase disease incidences and deaths from preventable and treatable diseases especially children. For instance, following some projections Malaria deaths may reach 769,000 in Africa – levels that were last seen 20 years ago – due to disruption of insecticide-treated net campaigns and access to antimalarial medicines.
• The COVID-19 pandemic is jeopardising Africa’s children formal learning, health and safety/protection, particularly the girls. It is estimated that over 262.5 million children from pre-primary and secondary school are currently out of school because of COVID-19 closures, which translates to approximately 21.5% of the total population in Africa. For many poor and vulnerable children in Africa, schools are not only a place for learning but also a safe space from violence and exploitation. It is also where they have a nutritious meal (sometimes the only meal for the day).
• COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding in Africa against a backdrop of worrying hunger levels driven by climate shocks, conflict and economic challenges. Recent estimates of food insecurity suggest that as many as 107 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa were acutely food insecure. The consequences of COVID-19 pandemic are adding to the long list of food insecurity drivers in Africa. Many projections show that the food insecure population could double in the coming months, which of course is a serious nutritional impact for children.
• COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing vulnerabilities.
This pandemic has also a catastrophic impact for the most vulnerable who do not have access to social protection system, including the most vulnerable children. Street children,
Internal Displaced Peoples and Refugees are not only expose to higher sanitary risk, they are also facing higher limitation to access to health and alternative education system. Children make up 59% of Africa’s refugees and asylum seekers and 50% of its internally displaced people, which are heavily impacted by preventing many across the continent from seeking asylum and safety, in violation of the international legal principle of non-refoulement .
• COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse development progress in Africa. COVID-19 economic aftershocks will derail the progress towards poverty reduction and will increase an additional 59 million people into the extreme poverty bracket in Africa; including 33 million children. The UN estimates that the reduction/loss of household income due to COVID-19 and subsequent cutback on essential health and food expenditure could erase the last 2 to 3 years of progress in reducing infant mortality.
As unprecedented as the crisis is, it has also shown Africa’s resilience and ability to tap into home-grown resourcefulness that presents unique opportunities for creating a better future for Africa. Many African governments have taken quick and decisive leadership in managing the COVID-19 pandemic with the international aid community playing a supportive role. This could set the pace for greater government ownership and assertion of control of emergencies and humanitarian crises within their borders. Some African governments have accelerated adaption of technology and multi-media platforms for learning. In future, it provides a means of widening participation to population segments that have traditionally been excluded from learning such as children in hard-to-reach areas and children living with disabilities.
African governments are now facing a Cornelian choice, between the imperative of avoiding the spread of the pandemic and the urgency of responding to the needs of the most vulnerable by reviving the economy. With one of the youngest population in the world, Africa remains very much exposed to many of the collateral impacts of the COVID 19. In coming weeks, they will have to continue to manage a multiple crisis.
But they will also have to ensure that this leadership will align with international and continental commitments to children’s rights and well-being, and in particular the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2020. To do so, Governments with the support of African Union will have to:
• Preserve children rights, during the COVID-19 pandemic, through guaranteeing access to quality health, Education and protection services and other rights as set out in the UNCRC and the ACRWC;
• Ensure that each response plan will be driven by the “best interest of the child” and the “do not harm” principles, in line with the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the child
• Recognise and integrate in their response plans the specific needs of the most vulnerable, including girls as a central element of the continental and national responses;
• Responding to the long term needs of children through the development and the implementation of social protection mechanisms and policies to protect children and families from any future shocks.
• Ensuring that children have real and safe opportunities to have their voices heard and influence COVID-19 decisionmaking.