The COVID-19 pandemic is rolling back progress on key childhood challenges such as poverty, health and access to education, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said in a new report on Thursday, representing the biggest global crisis for children since the agency was founded 75 years ago.
The widespread impact of the pandemic continues to deepen, the report warned, increasing poverty, entrenching inequality and threatening the rights of children like never before.
“While the number of children who are hungry, out of school, abused, living in poverty or forced into marriage is going up, the number of children with access to healthcare, vaccines, sufficient food and essential services is going down. In a year in which we should be looking forward, we are going backward.”
The report, Preventing a lost decade: Urgent action to reverse the devastating impact of COVID-19 on children and young people, was issued ahead of UNICEF’s landmark anniversary on 11 December.
COVID-19 has pushed a staggering 100 million more children into poverty: a 10 per cent increase since 2019. This corresponds to nearly two children every second since mid-March of last year, when the pandemic was declared.
UNICEF said even in a best-case scenario, recovery to pre-pandemic levels will take up to eight years.
On South Asia, the UNICEF report says Governments across South Asia need to urgently expand investments in basic health, education, and protection services for the millions of children and their families whose lives have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and other disasters, says a new UNICEF report released on the agency’s 75th anniversary.
The report says that unless rollbacks in critical health, immunization, nutrition, protection and education services are reversed, the worst consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will persist for decades. It notes that humanitarian disasters and climate-related hazards such as droughts, floods and air pollution have furthered exacerbated the situation for children.
Prior to the pandemic, South Asia was one of the fastest-growing regions in the world, with a large youth population poised to further accelerate growth and significant progress being made for children. Child mortality rates more than halved in the past quarter century, while the number of children suffering from stunting fell by more than a third since 2000.
Secondary school enrolment rose steadily, and the number of girls getting married before age 18 fell. Over 90 per cent of the population has access to safe drinking water.
“The remarkable achievements our region has made in advancing child rights over recent decades are now at risk,” said George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia. “If we fail to act, the worst impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for decades to come. But by acting now, we can reignite opportunities and ensure every child in South Asia not only survives but thrives.”
The report identifies immediate priorities, such as fully restoring basic health and immunization services and helping students catch up on the learning they have missed. But it also outlines the lessons learned and the opportunities that have been opened up by the pandemic which can now be leveraged into gains for all children.
They include public health systems that have been strengthened through infrastructure introduced to better respond to COVID-19 – such as improved cold chain and oxygen infrastructure. Other opportunities include increased public conversations around mental health which are helping to spotlight needs and drive demand for more services, and increased recognition of the region’s deep digital divide and opportunities to bridge it.
While making urgent investments to reverse rollbacks in progress for children, the region also needs to be prepared for future waves of the pandemic, UNICEF said.
“Just 30 per cent of South Asia is fully vaccinated, leaving families dangerously unprotected as new variants continue to emerge,” George Laryea-Adjei said. “Governments around the world must ensure fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. The pandemic will not be over for anyone until it is over for everyone.”
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on children was reiterated in a youth statement entitled “Our Future, Our Rights, Our Voices,” the outcome of extensive virtual consultations involving nearly 500 young people from the 8 South Asian countries.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made our situation much worse. Our schools have been closed, often for months at a time. Many of us may never return to school,” said the statement, which was shared with UNICEF, the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and senior government officials. “With your action, we can transform the lives of young people in South Asia.”
The report outlines the key actions needed to reverse the rollbacks in progress for children, and begin building a better future for every child in South Asia, among them:
Expanding investment in child-sensitive social protection programmes, especially for the most vulnerable children and their families.
Resuming in-person learning in schools while addressing learning losses, bridging the region’s digital divide and improving the quality of education for every child.
Stronger integrated national health and nutrition systems that protect children from deadly but treatable diseases and reverse the region’s child nutrition crisis.
Protecting children from neglect and abuse and the promotion of the mental health of all children and young people.
Urgent action to protect children from climate change through increased investment in climate adaptation and resilience in key services for children.
In 2020, disruptions linked to COVID-19 led to an estimated 228,000 additional child deaths, while an estimated 5.3 million children missed out on vital vaccinations, nearly 1.9 million more than the previous year. An additional 3.85 million children are thought to have suffered from wasting in 2020.
School closures lasted longer than in almost any other region. Over 400 million children and their teachers were forced to transition to remote learning in a region with low connectivity and device affordability, leading to alarming inequities in learning opportunities. Poorer children in remote areas, girls and students with disabilities were disproportionately affected.
“Today’s crises present a unique opportunity to build strong and adaptable health, education and protection systems that meet the needs of all children,” said George Laryea-Adjei. “UNICEF will continue to work closely with governments in South Asia, as well as businesses, civil society, and children themselves, to make sure that no child is left behind.”