Children could be hidden victims of COVID, says UNICEF chief

Published : April 10, 2020 20:04 IST

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore and World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley interact with children at a school in southern Idlib in Syria, in March. Photo: Omar Sanadiki/UNICEF/AP

One of the less studied aspects of the impact of COVID-19 has been its impact on children. While the case fatality rates seem to be high in the older age groups, countries with younger populations, especially in the developing countries, suffered from morbidity that made them vulnerable to the virus. The United Nations Children Fund has warned that not only were children and young people contracting COVID-19, they were among its most seriously impacted victims. Countries, it said, ought to resist the temptation to de-prioritise investment in “our future”, referring to children.

In a statement issued on April 9, Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, said that 99 per cent of children and young people under 18 years (2.34 billion) lived in one of the 186 countries where restrictions on movement existed and 60 per cent, or 1.4 billion children, lived in one of the 82 countries that had a full or partial lockdown. The “young and the vulnerable”, she said, suffered disproportionately in any crisis. The UNICEF chief stated that “increased investments now in education, child protection, health and nutrition, and water and sanitation will help the world reduce the damage caused by this crisis and avoid future crises.”

Many national health systems were already struggling, she said, and added that COVID-19 had the potential to overwhelm fragile health systems in low- and middle-income countries.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, some 32 per cent of children worldwide with pneumonia symptoms were not being taken to a health provider. She expressed concern over “disruptions in immunisation services” and the possibility of outbreaks of diseases for which vaccines already existed, like polio, measles and cholera. She feared that “many more newborns, children, young people and pregnant mothers could be lost to non-coronavirus related causes if national health care systems, already under great strain, become completely overwhelmed”. Many nutrition programmes had got disrupted or suspended, as were community programmes for the early detection and treatment of undernourished children.

She called for a “redoubling of investment” in education. Similarly, measures like social safety nets, cash transfers, protecting jobs and working with employers to support working parents were needed to cushion the socio-economic impact of COVID. The probability of violence and abuse against children was also high as had been seen in countries that had gone through health emergencies in the past. The UNICEF chief cited the example of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa where school closures led to a spike in child labour, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies. It was also documented that two out of three children were subjected to violence by caregivers.

Henrietta Fore said that the current outbreak was “applying pressure on global manufacturer production and on logistics”. Globally, the supply chains of essential commodities were found to have taken a deep hit due to shut downs, less manufacturing and restricted movement of people. The “pressure on production capacity” was impacting interventions in health, education, water and sanitation programmes and it was important, according to the global child rights body, that this pressure did not prevent the “sourcing and shipping of essential supplies” to support the intervention programmes.

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