By Lydia O’Kane
This week, the UN Children’s Agency, UNICEF warned that the Coronavirus pandemic is “unravelling decades of health, education and other advances for children across South Asia”.
In a new report issued on Tuesday, the agency said that “governments must take urgent action to prevent millions of families from slipping back into poverty.”
The findings of the report entitled, “Lives Upended” show that the “side effects of the pandemic are having severe consequences for the region’s 600 million children.”
According to the document, “immunization, nutrition and other vital health services have been severely disrupted, potentially threatening the lives of up to 459,000 children and mothers over the next six months.”
Effects on families
Speaking to Vatican Radio following its publication, the report’s author, Simon Ingram said that although it has been apparent for some time that the scale of the pandemic was having a devastating effect on a number of vital services affecting children, “what came as much more of a surprise was the speed with which the economic meltdown in the region, brought on by COVID-19, had on families.”
He noted that very rapidly following the outbreak, families were unable to feed themselves, and in many cases could not afford medical care for their children.
The true extent of the situation is now becoming apparent with the very real risk that “another 120 million children are being pushed into poverty over the coming months”, he said.
Food insecurity is on the rise, according to the report, especially in countries such as Bangladesh where some of the poorest families are unable to afford three meals a day.
However, Mr Ingram underlined that for countries in South Asia this dramatic situation, “is really across the boards.” He pointed to Afghanistan which already has pre-existing problems, such as malnutrition and an ongoing conflict. But he also said the Maldives, which has made significant progress in recent years, in terms of education and health, is now feeling the dramatic effects of the pandemic, most notably in the area of tourism.
From an education perspective, more than 430 million children have had to rely on remote learning due to the pandemic. UNICEF underlined that “many households– especially in rural areas – have no electricity, let alone internet access.”
The report’s author described the impact of the pandemic on education as both, “horrific and terrible”. He also said UNICEF is calling on schools to be re-opened for children to continue learning, provided they can be opened safely. “While we understand that governments have had to take very difficult decisions, especially in the beginning in order to protect their populations against the pandemic, the evidence has not been sufficient in our view to justify the continuing closure of schools.”
Another concern, the children’s agency pointed out, is an increase in violence, abuse and neglect of children living amid restricted freedom of movement and socio-economic decline.
During the outbreak, Mr Ingram noted, UNICEF saw a “spike in the number of calls from children who said they were the victims of abuse and violence because they were locked down at home; locked down essentially with their abusers.” He also stressed that health and socials workers, due to a lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were finding it difficult to look into cases of children reporting abuse.
Long term impact
According to the findings, “in recent years rising levels of prosperity produced significant health, education and other advances for children in South Asia”. The document also shows that “improvements in infant and maternal mortality were matched by declines in the number of out-of-school children and in child marriages.”
But due to the economic meltdown triggered by Coronavirus, families across the region are suffering. As in many countries around the world, unemployment has risen, wages have been cut and tourism has been greatly affected.
In the light of this, Mr Ingram said that “right across the board, there’s a very real danger that more than 600 million children in South Asia will see their life prospects diminished sadly over the coming months unless urgent action is taken.”
In order to mitigate the impact on poorer families, the report says, “Governments should immediately direct more resources towards social protection schemes, including emergency universal child benefits and school feeding programmes.”
Mr Ingram expressed the hope that “the flip side” of this report, will be a call to action in the region to undertake these essential steps, that will give the poorest families and the most vulnerable children in the region protection against the worst effects of the pandemic.