Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims, as children’s lives are nonetheless being changed in profound ways. 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.
As families lose their sources of income due to COVID-19 and the global economy has been plunged into a recession, more households are falling into monetary poverty. For the poorest families, including those who do not have access to social protection, the situation is dire. The global socioeconomic crisis caused by the pandemic could push 142 million more children into monetary poor households in developing countries, according to projections as of November 2020. The total number of children living in poor households globally could reach just over 725 million in the absence of any mitigating policies. Nearly two-thirds of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Since children experience poverty differently than adults, it is also important to assess their material shortcomings and potential deprivations and to measure their poverty multidimensionally rather than just through income alone. Approximately 150 million additional children are living in multidimensional poverty – without access to education, health care, housing, nutrition, sanitation or water – due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the analysis jointly carried out by Save the Children and UNICEF. Using data from more than 70 countries, the authors find that around 45 per cent of children were severely deprived of at least one of these critical needs before the coronavirus pandemic even hit. And although the current data paint a dire picture, the situation for children living in multidimensional poverty is likely to worsen unless national governments and the international community step up to soften the blow.
Exacerbating the learning crisis
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. Schools for more than 168 million children globally have been completely closed for almost an entire year due to COVID-19 lockdowns, as of March 2020. Furthermore, around 214 million children globally – or 1 in 7 – have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning.
188 countries imposed countrywide school closures during the pandemic, affecting more than 1.6 billion children and youth. Even prior to the pandemic, however, children’s learning was in crisis, and the pandemic has only sharpened these inequities, hitting schoolchildren in poorer countries particularly hard. Globally, many schools lack the resources to invest in digital learning, and many children from poorer households do not have internet access.
At least one in three of the world’s schoolchildren – 463 million children globally – were unable to access remote learning when COVID-19 shuttered their schools. And the actual number of students who cannot be reached is likely significantly higher than this estimate. In many situations, despite remote learning policies and the presence of the necessary technology at home, children may be unable to learn due to skills gaps among their teachers or a lack of parental support.
Though national governments around the world have been quick to implement remote learning, new health protocols and reopening plans, these policies have varied widely based on each country’s wealth. Schoolchildren in the poorest countries have already lost nearly four months of schooling since the start of the pandemic, compared to six weeks in high-income countries. Even short disruptions in children’s schooling can have long-lasting negative impacts due to factors including the lack of structured programmes for catching up. In the past, school closures have led to an increase in child marriage and child labour which often prevent children from continuing their education.
Threats to child survival and health
While children appear to be largely spared the direct mortality impacts of COVID-19, the indirect effects stemming from strained health systems and disruptions to life-saving health services such as immunization and antenatal care, can result in devastating increases in child deaths. The pandemic threatens to reverse decades of progress made around the world toward eliminating preventable child deaths.
COVID-19 is also likely to increase the number of stillbirths. Nearly 200,000 additional stillbirths could occur in 12 months as women are less likely or able to access health services. This senseless loss of life can often be prevented with quality antenatal and delivery care but even before the pandemic hit, few women were receiving the necessary care to prevent stillbirths.
Today, more vulnerable children are becoming malnourished due to the deteriorating quality of their diets and the multiple shocks created by the pandemic and its containment measures. Efforts to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 are disrupting food systems, upending health and nutrition services, devastating livelihoods, and threatening food security.
Every year, vaccines save an estimated 2 to 3 million lives, but COVID-19 threatens to roll back decades of progress made in reducing preventable child deaths by hindering access to these life-saving services. According to new data, nearly 14 million children did not receive any vaccines in 2019. Additionally, almost 6 million children received some but not all vaccines required for full protection against many life-threatening diseases. With COVID-19 putting enormous pressure on already weak or overstretched health systems, the number of unvaccinated and undervaccinated children is expected to increase, exacerbating existing inequities and putting the lives of many children at serious risk of disease or death.
More than 94 million children are at risk of missing measles vaccines because of paused measles campaigns in 26 countries due to efforts to control COVID-19 (as of November 2020), threatening to exacerbate ongoing measles outbreaks. Worldwide, cases of measles surged to nearly 870,000 in 2019, the highest number of reported cases in the past 23 years. And global measles deaths have climbed nearly 50 percent since 2016, claiming an estimated 207,500 lives in 2019 alone.
Decades-long progress in the fight against HIV under threat
New HIV infections among young children have decreased by half in the last decade, however, service disruptions due to COVID-19 could reverse these gains. The number of new HIV infections is projected to nearly double if 100 per cent of the population loses access to treatment services over a six-month period, and the number of paediatric deaths will similarly soar.
Increased risks of violence, exploitation and abuse
Lockdowns measures can expose children to a range of risks. Several factors related to confinement measures are likely to result in heightened tensions in the household, added stressors placed on caregivers, economic uncertainty, job loss or disruption to livelihoods, and social isolation. These are well known risk factors for violence at home. And as the risk of violence against children has increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, child protection services have been weakened due in part to measures implemented to control the spread of the virus. 1.8 billion children live in the 104 countries where violence prevention and response services have been disrupted due to COVID-19.
The everyday lives of girls have been overturned by the pandemic: their physical and mental health, their education, and the economic circumstances of their families and communities. Changes like these increase the likelihood of child marriage, and over the next decade, up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides as a result of the pandemic.
The risk of child marriage increases through various pathways, including economic shocks, school closures and interruptions in services. It is well known, for example, that economic insecurity can lead to child marriage as a way to relieve financial pressure on a family. The evidence is also clear that education is a protective factor against child marriage. Thus, school closures such as those triggered by COVID-19 may, in effect, push girls towards marriage since school is no longer an option. Additionally, the disruption of ‘non-essential’ services including reproductive health services have a direct impact on teenage pregnancy and subsequently on marriage.
The COVID-19 crisis could also lead to the first rise in child labour after 20 years of progress. Child labour decreased by 94 million since 2000, but that gain is now at risk. Among other impacts, COVID-19 could result in a rise in poverty and therefore to an increase in child labour as households use every available means to survive.