COVID-19 — From health crisis to child rights crisis

Why health, wellbeing, and education of children across the globe are at risk from the pandemic — especially, but not only, in the Global South

By Samia Kassid

The Corona pandemic is not the first pandemic the world is facing, but it is the one that will have lasting effects on every nation, people, especially children and youth. Devastating pandemics have occurred in large outbreaks, the best known being the Black Death in the 14th century and the Spanish flu that swept the world in the aftermath of World War One, killing 50 to 100 million people; most of them between their 20s and 40s. In recent decades, the world has seen pandemics like HIV/Aids, SARS or Ebola.

But none of the response measures ever taken to fight a pandemic have had such massive short-term and far-reaching consequences and implications as we see now. COVID-19 is transforming from a health crisis into an all-encompassing human, social, economic, and labour market crisis. Most countries have mandated radical lockdowns, issuing travel bans and strict stay-at-home measures, shutting kindergartens, schools, and businesses. This has had a dramatic impact on education, isolation, and economic vulnerability. This unprecedented situation is having an immeasurable impact on the well-being, protection and prospects of children and youth all over the world.

From health crises to socio-economic and humanitarian tragedy

Millions of people are not able to work. Some cannot make a living. Others have at-risk jobs which brings unique stress to their children, partners, and extended family. As economies worldwide grind into gridlock, it is the smaller businesses, self-employed or daily-wage earners that suffer the most, as well casual or migrant workers, and those on zero-hour contracts. Many people already lived in poverty pre COVID-19 crisis, with no savings and no safety net. Their children will now face additional and unprecedented hardship due to the loss of family income and the additional stress of social confinement.

The pandemic and children’s rights

Children in every country, regardless of family background, have lost many of their rights. The right to education and information, the right to play and the right to privacy have all been substantially restricted, and at very short notice.

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children everywhere is felt in different ways, regardless of country, region, urban or rural situation. All children are suffering, in developed countries, emerging countries or developing countries.

The right to education and the right to play are in danger

According to UNESCO, some 191 countries have temporarily imposed national or local school closures, including early childcare centres, to contain the spread of COVID-19. Over 90% of students worldwide are affected and the education of more than 1.6 billion of the global population of school-aged children and young people has been suddenly disrupted. They have lost access to essential learning.

Schools are more than educational institutions. They are an important part of communities and hubs of social activity. School closures mean that many children lose social contacts. Socialising is important for our children to learn and thrive. Interrupting education predominantly affects vulnerable children. They learn less and drop-out more. The longer the interruption without a clear timeline, the heavier the disadvantages are for students.

Depending on the severity of the national shutdown, most children in developed and emerging countries in urban areas are being forced to stay at home, mostly in tiny flats with no place to play and little privacy. Where it is offered, digital teaching challenges both children and their parents. School closure is a major stress factor or teachers and parents as it came suddenly, forcing them to transition to distance learning without any prior experience. Teachers may be worried about short-time work or even suspension. Parents have not been prepared for home schooling while also working from home.

For children from difficult or deprived families, the situation is especially challenging. Some families are without internet, computers, or books. Some parents are unable to help with homework because of their own limited educational or linguistic background. It is clear that unequal educational opportunities due to social background will increase.

The situation in the Global South is particularly worrying, given the struggles children already face day to day to access quality education. For millions of poor families, everyday life happens “on the street“ with small and insecure homes merely a place to sleep. A school shut down for a long period of time can cause more than lockdown fatigue. Closed schools also mean, for most children, to stay at home with no proper space to learn. Already, before COVID-19, some 250 million children were out-of-school due to poverty, poor governance, or because of emergency. Today that figure has skyrocketed.

There are concerns that children and young people from deprived families may not return to school after reopening. The severe economic hardships that many families are facing will pressure children to work to bring essential income to support their families. This will affect girls as much as boys. Already, during situations of crisis, young and adolescent girls are twice as likely to be out-of-school.

The right to play and the right to leisure have been stripped away, leaving many children spending many hours on the internet, if their parents can afford it, without proper supervision. What is more, many are doing very little exercise as sports facilities and children’s playgrounds are closed. Working parents without any other option might be forced to leave their children alone at home, which can lead to risky behaviour. Children with less access to information won’t be able to understand what is happening, and will become fearful and potentially traumatised when separated from their parents, or when neighbours or family members suddenly get ill or die, and they have to interact with public authorities.

The right to health, the right to sanitation, and the right to protection are at risk

In many poor countries and communities across the world, children are at risk of not getting the treatments they need. The already weak and now overburdened public health systems are solely focussed on treating COVID-19 patients. Newborns and young children might not be protected against preventable diseases like malaria, diarrhoea, or pneumonia. Worse, millions more children and their families have no adequate access to safe water, sanitation, or hygiene facilities, and stand little chance of protecting themselves and their families from the virus.

A socio-economic crisis is unfolding with vulnerable children and youth more at risk from violence, abuse and exploitation. Child right’s experts fear that with social isolation, there are babies, girls and boys facing increased risk of (sexual) violence, neglect and abuse at home, with no help from outside, because schools, friends and other family members, institutions and youth welfare offices, who might help, are not reachable. Out-of-school children are more likely to be exposed to risks like family violence, child labour, forced marriage, trafficking, exploitation and recruitment into militias.

From a health pandemic to hunger pandemic

While the world is busy trying to contain the spread of COVID-19, there are an estimated 135 million people at risk of starvation and 30 countries in the developing world at risk of widespread famine. Already today, more than one million people are on the brink of starvation in 10 of those countries.

In Africa, people were already suffering food shortages long before COVID-19. Desert locust swarms, the climate crisis and war have all exacerbated this delicate situation. And now with the trade and supply chains broken due to COVID-19 measures, an additional 130 million people could now starve, already within the next few months.

Children are particularly vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition. More than 360 million students rely on free or discounted nutritious meals at school. Without nutritious meals, their immunity and growth potential will suffer.

A particularly vulnerable group of children, refugee children, migrant children and children affected by conflict, are already traumatised. They live in crowded and difficult conditions with no access to basic services. They face further threats to their safety and well-being as the pandemic reaches their shelters. The pandemic outbreak calls for a global ceasefire.

Children first! The wellbeing of children must take priority in policy now and post COVID-19

As the world is entering a global recession with uncertain outcomes for economies and their citizens, it’s not only important to learn from this crisis and build back better to create a fairer and healthier future, but also to put the wellbeing of children at the centre of policy. Countries are responsible, under international human rights law, to uphold children’s rights. All decisions taken now will have a long-term impact on children and their future potential. Action on children’s rights is an intergenerational equity imperative.

The World Future Council calls on governments and policymakers to consider the unique risks and needs of girls, boys, vulnerable children, and youth in their short-term and middle-term responses to COVID-19. One-size-fits-all policies leave these vulnerable children behind. The policy responses uphold children’s rights and be appropriate to the unique situation of children and be fit for purpose.

Without urgent child-centric policy measures, the current and next generation of children will bear the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic response measures, with far reaching negative consequences.

Good and future-just policies for children have been mapped by the World Future Council. These good policies provided a bank of proven policies that are effective. The good policies address children’s rights to protection, education and participation, a healthy and intact natural environment as well as access to healthy food. Policymakers face a stark decision to save lives while also saving the potential for future wellbeing. Children today represent every nation’s potential for economic and social wellbeing. At the World Future Council, we urge governments to share and spread our good policies for children, and to put children at the heart of policy making now so all our futures are protected. Many strong policies already exist in pockets around the world. Let’s strengthen them and our collective resolve to put children front and centre of COVID-19 policy action.