In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world have taken unprecedented steps in an effort to prevent and contain spread of the virus. Some of these containment measures have included closures of schools and childcare services, lockdowns and guidelines for physical distancing, shutting down of non-essential businesses, and suspension of community and recreation services and programmes. The ripple effects of such actions and the impact on families and societies is now being felt, and seen, in very real ways including strain on healthcare systems, a pending economic crisis, food and housing insecurity, and social upheaval.

These disruptions to everyday life mean that many young children are at home unable to attend early childhood education and care and are therefore now entirely reliant on their caregivers for nurturing care and to meet all of their developmental needs (physical, emotional, social and cognitive). This added burden on families to balance childcare and work responsibilities, compounded by economic instability and social isolation in many cases, is fertile ground for home environments characterized by toxic stress. We know that optimal brain development requires a stimulating and enriching environment, adequate nutrition, learning opportunities and social interaction with attentive caregivers. Under the current pandemic context, access to these opportunities will likely be severely restricted, compromising the healthy developmental trajectory of many children. Unsafe conditions, negative interactions and lack of educational opportunities during the early years can lead to irreversible outcomes, which can affect a child’s potential for the remainder of his or her life.

Of course, the opposite pattern could also emerge such that we witness an increase in responsive and nurturing care provided to children as caregivers spend increasing amounts of time in the home and are less engaged in work and social activities outside the home.

Both the immediate and long-term negative effects of the pandemic on children’s health and development are likely to disproportionately affect families in communities with high concentrations of poverty, lack of access to quality healthcare and affordable childcare, food and housing insecurity, and limited services for family support. Similarly, the ongoing crisis is likely only to exacerbate the situation of children living in home environments characterized by a lack of access to developmentally appropriate resources, such as toys and books, low levels of stimulation and responsive care, or inadequate supervision prior to the crisis. Also, it may be unrealistic to expect caregivers, particularly those with low levels of education or limited caregiving skills to begin with, to be able to offset the resulting gaps from children’s lack of attendance to education and other care opportunities.

Mitigating the negative impact of COVID-19 on young children will require strategic multi-sectoral approaches and the synergy of interventions in health, nutrition, security, protection, participation and early education.

What UNICEF is doing

UNICEF maintains global databases on key indicators of early childhood development including access to learning materials at home, early stimulation and responsive care by caregivers, exposure to inadequate supervision, attendance to early childhood education and developmental outcomes. These data can shed light on the status of early childhood outcomes and related contextual factors in countries and highlight inequities and vulnerabilities that might undermine children from reaching their developmental potential.

Resources on COVID-19 and early childhood development