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Learning gap, poverty, and online risks: COVID-19 impact on children

There are already an estimated 152 million children in child labor, 73 million of which are involved in hazardous work and the global health crisis is further exacerbating the situation further.

COE-EDPCOE-EDP | Updated: 27-06-2020 06:32 IST | Created: 27-06-2020 06:15 IST
Learning gap, poverty, and online risks: COVID-19 impact on children
Although children are less vulnerable from the direct health effects of the deadly disease as compared to other age groups, school closures, movement restrictions, and physical distancing measures are hitting them hard. Image Credit:

The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged the world into an unprecedented crisis. As of this writing, the pandemic has claimed 372,566 lives and infected 6,198, 170 people across 188 countries or regions. Children, especially the most vulnerable in the poorest countries are bearing the brunt of the socio-economic crisis triggered by the pandemic and the related containment measures worldwide.

Although children are less vulnerable from the direct health effects of the deadly disease as compared to other age groups, school closures, movement restrictions, and physical distancing measures are hitting them hard. COVID-19 disruptions disproportionately affect girls, children already hit by conflict, migrants, refugees, and those with disabilities are exposed to higher levels of risk and bear the greatest costs of the crisis. For example, nine out of 10 children in Latin America and the Caribbean, the new epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, between three and four years old are exposed to at least one of the major risk factors of emotional abuse, domestic violence, and punishment, failure to receive early education, lack of support and inadequate care and the worsening outbreak in the region will amplify the pre-existing vulnerabilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic and related confinement measures have both immediate and long term effects on children. Here is how:

COVID-19 impact on children

Education

Education, a key driver for socio-economic development is critically important for individual empowerment. From eradicating poverty and improving healthcare to fostering peace, education is a potential tool not only to transform individual lives but the society and the world as a whole. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, 258 million children and youth of primary- and secondary school age were already out of school and now school closures have affected the learning of more than 1.5 billion children and youth across 188 countries. For instance, in Venezuela, 100 percent of the children and adolescents who were enrolled in their host countries are currently out of school and without a certain return.

While educational institutions in most countries have shifted to online or distance learning, only 30 percent of low-income countries have done so. The existing digital divide also makes it hard for the disadvantaged population to reap the benefits of online learning. The disparity in access to reliable internet and computing devices like smartphone or laptop threaten students from low-income backgrounds and if the trend persists the situation may get even worse, subsequently limiting growth and development opportunities for these disadvantaged students.

Health and well-being

So far, children have been less vulnerable to the direct impact of COVID-19 as compared to other age groups, but they are at greater risk from the indirect effects of the pandemic.

Mental health - Physical distancing, quarantine, and self-isolation can make children stressed and depressed which can have devastating effects on their physical and mental health. Several studies have suggested that children are grappling with increased mental health problems due to home-schooling and less physical interaction with peers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Surveys conducted by the 'Save the Children' organization of over 6000 children and parents in the US, Germany, Finland, Spain, and the UK to determine the effects of the social restrictions on children, revealed that up to 65 percent of the children struggled with boredom and feelings of isolation. The impacts of the current crisis could have long-lasting consequences on children's mental health

Immunization - The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the routine immunization services for hundreds of millions of children around the world. According to the data collected by the WHO, UNICEF, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Sabin Vaccine Institute, due to COVID-19, 27 countries have temporarily suspended life-saving measles vaccination campaigns while polio campaigns have been put on hold in 38 countries. At least 24 million people in 21 lower-income countries supported by GAVI are at risk of missing out on vaccines against polio, measles, typhoid, yellow fever, cholera, rotavirus, HPV, meningitis A and rubella due to postponed campaigns and introductions of new vaccines.

Malnutrition - Well-nourished children grow more quickly and are more resilient in times of global crisis, but those with malnutrition are at increased risk of acquiring infections. Prior to the crisis, the world faced unacceptable rates of childhood malnutrition, and Covid-19 may just aggravate the situation. Nearly half of the world's total children rely on school meals for a regular source of daily nutrition but with school shutdowns, not only education but children's food security and nutrition are also under risk during the pandemic. In addition, food supply chain disruptions along with household income loss can further add to the woes of vulnerable children in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Overall, the disruptions caused by COVID-19 will make it very tough for low-income or no-income families and their children to access health care services, thereby reversing years of progress towards achieving universal health coverage (UHC).

Social issues

Poverty - Poorest and most vulnerable families and children are being hardest hit by business closures, income shocks, and economic vulnerability as a whole. Little or no income means reduced access to basic essential services like food and nutrition, healthcare, education, and housing. Children living in conflict zones such as the Middle East and North Africa region face the greatest risk of falling into poverty. Even before the pandemic, an estimated 386 million children were already living in extreme poverty and adding to the existing crisis, the COVID-19 induced economic distress could push up to 86 million more children into household poverty by the end of 2020, an increase of 15 percent, with a majority of them concentrated in Europe and Central Asia and the Latin America and the Caribbean region.

Child labor - Household poverty and lack of learning opportunities push and pull children into child labor. There are already an estimated 152 million children in child labor, 73 million of which are involved in hazardous work and the global health crisis is further exacerbating the situation further. Now that schools are closed and disadvantaged children do not have access to the internet and other necessary tools to continue their learning remotely, this will likely push more children into child labor. In addition, job losses and the loss of livelihoods could drive the figures up. The UNHCR recently reported a spike in the number of families resorting to harmful coping mechanisms such as begging, child labor, and marrying off children to survive the ongoing crisis.

Violence and abuse - COVID-19 containment measures including movement restrictions, school closures, and self-isolation is exposing children to increased risk of abuse and exploitation including physical, mental, and sexual. Child helplines in some Asian countries have reported a spike of 33% up to 50% in the number of received calls after the implementation of confinement measures by the government. Heightened levels of stress and anxiety in parents due to financial hardships and uncertainty about the future might lead to child maltreatment.

Child marriage - The situation is particularly alarming for girls who traditionally face increased pressure to quit schooling to take alternative roles. Experiences from past crises including the Ebola epidemic in Africa show that out-of-school girls face disproportionate harm as they are at substantial risk of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, child marriage, and pregnancy. In countries like Nigeria that has the third-highest absolute number of child brides in the world, prolonged school closures, and financial woes have increased girls' vulnerability to early marriage and pregnancy during the lockdown period. This will hamper their return to schools even after the crisis subsides and everything gets back to normal.

In a recent survey conducted by the Center for Global Development (CGD), 78 percent of respondents cited increased exposure to gender-based violence during school closures as an important or very important concern while 68 percent ranked early marriage and pregnancy among school-age girls during the pandemic as an important or very important concern.

Online risk

The rapid shift to digital solutions during the pandemic has increased concerns surrounding children's online safety. Children are spending more time on virtual platforms for learning, socializing, or entertainment which makes them more vulnerable to online abuse and exploitation. Online predators may approach children, particularly girls, gain their trust and send them age-inappropriate content to spread misinformation or sexually abuse them. Children may also be exposed to cybercrimes which may also exacerbate pre-existing stress and mental health issues.

Minimizing risks

After months of shutdowns, many countries are gradually easing restrictions and resuming essential activities despite surging coronavirus cases. Amidst all these challenges, governments and policy-makers around the world need to consider the following key actions to contain and mitigate the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic on children's well-being.

  • Upholding children's right to education during school closures by ensuring equitable access to distance learning tools and resources via low-tech or no-tech solutions
  • Resources for parents or guardians to help children avoid online risks and make online experiences safer. For instance, Australia's eSafety Commissioner has launched additional resources containing evidence-based suggestions and trustworthy links to manage online safety during the COVID-19 situation including tips for parents and carers, educators, and information regarding domestic and family violence.
  • Intensify efforts to make nutritious food affordable and accessible to children already living in extreme poverty or those at risk of being pushed into it due to containment measures and economic distress.
  • Ensuring the continuity of essential services like routine immunization, school meal programs, etc as lockdown restrictions are easing
  • Expanding social protection measures such as cash transfers and food transfers to support families suffering from income shocks to facilitate access to basic services including learning and healthcare.
  • Legal reforms and international collaboration to address child labor, child trafficking and cyber risks during and after the crisis
  • National child helpline service to create awareness and help them report incidents of violence and abuse while at home and emergency shelters for the rehabilitation of survivors of child abuse and exploitation
  • Engaging children in COVID-19 response and recovery decision-making process as the crisis evolves over time
  • Accurate and timely data, particularly gender-disaggregated data to assess the damage and respond more effectively to the crisis

VisionRI's Centre of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) aims to keep track of the transition trajectory of global development and works towards conceptualization, development, and mainstreaming of innovative developmental approaches, frameworks, and practices.


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