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.

Pushing more households into poverty

The ongoing crisis could increase the number of children living in monetary poverty by up to 86 million by the end of the year, an increase of 15 per cent. The latest analysis from UNICEF and Save the Children finds that countries across Europe and Central Asia could see the most significant rise – up to 44 per cent. Immediate loss of income often means families are less able to afford basics, including food and water, are less likely to access health care or education, and are more at risk of violence, exploitation and abuse.

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

While the available evidence indicates the direct impact of COVID-19 on child and adolescent mortality to be very limited, the indirect effects on child survival  stemming from strained health systems, household income loss, and disruptions to care-seeking and preventative interventions like vaccination may be substantial and widespread. According to a study covering 118 low- and middle-income countries by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, an additional 1.2 million under-five deaths could occur in just six months due to reductions in routine health service coverage levels and an increase in child wasting.

Millions of children are in danger of missing life-saving vaccines against measles, diphtheria and polio due to disruptions in immunization service. Polio vaccination campaigns have been suspended worldwide, setting back the decades-long effort to eliminate the wild virus from its last two vestiges, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to tackle recent outbreaks of the vaccine-derived virus in Africa, East Asia and the Pacific. In addition, measles immunization campaigns have already been delayed in 24 countries and more will be postponed.

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

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Data to inform the COVID-19 response

UNICEF’s call to protect children, especially the most marginalized, is essential now more than ever and our global databases can inform that response by painting a picture of children around the world. In the face of this unprecedented crisis, where are children especially vulnerable to physical punishment? Are sufficient hygiene facilities available in schools? And is healthcare accessible for children with acute respiratory symptoms? How will the most vulnerable children, such as those living on the street or in refugee camps fare? Data like these can provide guidance for UNICEF and country programmes so that our efforts to mitigate and overcome the effects of the pandemic can be measured.

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Regional profiles on handwashing data 

Washing hands frequently and properly with soap and water is critical to preventing diseases. Yet the latest global estimates find that 3 billion people lacked soap and water at home, 900 million children lacked soap and water at their school, and 40% of health care facilities were not equipped to practice hand hygiene at points of care. Adequate water, sanitation and hygiene services for households, schools and healthcare facilities are essential to prevent the spread of infectious diseases including COVID-19. The low levels of coverage of these basic services in many parts of the world reflect substantial inequalities between and within countries and contribute to the vulnerability of these populations to the pandemic.

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Rapid situation tracking for COVID-19 socioeconomic impacts

Measures taken by governments to contain and mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic are having persistent and far-reaching impacts on children’s lives. Families are facing heightened stress under lockdown with many experiencing financial insecurity. And children are missing out on life-saving vaccines and much-needed free meals because of the suspension of services. While others experience increasing threats to their safety and wellbeing as services that prevent and respond to violence, abuse and neglect are suspended. Many children, especially the most vulnerable, even risk losing their lives to preventable diseases because access to healthcare is disrupted.

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Child mortality
Water and sanitation
Child protection
Child disability
Early childhood development
Child migration and displacement
HIV/AIDS
Maternal and newborn health
Gender equality