Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims. While they have thankfully been largely spared from the direct health effects of COVID-19 - at least to date – the crisis is having a profound effect on their wellbeing. All children, of all ages, and in all countries, are being affected, in particular by the socio-economic impacts and, in some cases, by mitigation measures that may inadvertently do more harm than good. This is a universal crisis and, for some children, the impact will be lifelong.
Moreover, the harmful effects of this pandemic will not be distributed equally. They are expected to be most damaging for children in the poorest countries, and in the poorest neighbourhoods, and for those in already disadvantaged or vulnerable situations.
There are three main channels through which children are affected by this crisis: infection with the virus itself; the immediate socioeconomic impacts of measures to stop transmission of the virus and end the pandemic; and the potential longer-term effects of delayed implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
All of this is affecting children in multiple ways:
Falling into poverty: An estimated 42-66 million children could fall into extreme poverty as a result of the crisis this year, adding to the estimated 386 million children already in extreme poverty in 2019.
Exacerbating the learning crisis: 188 countries have imposed countrywide school closures, affecting more than 1.5 billion children and youth. The potential losses that may accrue in learning for today’s young generation, and for the development of their human capital, are hard to fathom. More than two-thirds of countries have introduced a national distance learning platform, but among low-income countries the share is only 30 percent. Before this crisis, almost one third of the world’s young people were already digitally excluded.
Threats to child survival and health:
Economic hardship experienced by families as a result of the global economic downturn could result in hundreds of thousands of additional child deaths in 2020, reversing the last 2 to 3 years of progress in reducing infant mortality within a single year. And this alarming figure does not even take into account services disrupted due to the crisis – it only reflects the current relationship between economies and mortality, so is likely an under-estimate of the impact. Rising malnutririon is expected as 368.5 million children across 143 countries who normally rely on school meals for a reliable source of daily nutrition must now look to other sources. The risks to child mental health and well being are also considerable. Refugee and internally displaced children as well as those living in detention and situations of active conflict are especially vulnerable.
Risks for child safety: Lockdowns and shelter in place measures come with heightened risk of children witnessing or suffering violence and abuse. Children in conflict settings, as well as those living in unsanitary and crowded conditions such as refugee and IDP settlements, are also at considerable risk. Children’s reliance on online platforms for distance learning has also increased their risk of exposure to inappropriate content and online predators
This policy brief provides a deeper analysis of these effects. It identifies also a series of immediate and sustained actions for the attention of goverments and policymakers, including in relation to the following three priorities:
• Rebalance the combination of interventions to minimize the impact of standard physical distancing and lockdown strategies on children in low-income countries and communities and expand social protection programmes to reach the most vulnerable children.
• Prioritize the continuity of child-centred services, with a particular focus on equity of access – particularly in relation to schooling, nutrition programmes, immunization and other maternal and newborn care, and community-based child protection programmes.
• Provide practical support to parents and caregivers, including how to talk about the pandemic with children, how to manage their own mental health and the mental health of their children, and tools to help support their children’s learning.
For each of the above, specific protections must be put in place for vulnerable children including refugees, the displaced, homeless, migrants, minorities, slum-dwellers, children living with disabilities, street children, living in refugee settlements, and children in institutions.
Now is the time to step up international solidarity for children and humanity— and to lay the foundations for a deeper transformation of the way we nurture and invest in our world’s youngest generation.
The United Nations system – our agencies, funds, programmes and the Secretariat entities – are working across all settings and stand ready to support all governments and societies.