The Choices We Make Now During the Pandemic Are Critical for the Long-Term Wellbeing of Children Everywhere

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

For millions of children, the pandemic will have alarming long-term effects that can only be lessened or prevented by acting now.

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Children may escape the worst symptoms of Covid-19 and suffer lower mortality rates, but for millions of children around the world, the pandemic will have devastating effects. This health crisis has highlighted major problems in many countries in terms of protections for children, including the lack of emergency action plans for large-scale school shutdowns and lack of protection for children in a variety of stressful life circumstances including being orphaned by the virus and insufficient safety nets for children in low-income families. Many times, children may experience more than one of these factors.

School Closings

The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a health crisis, it is also a major educational crisis. Over 1.5 billion students and 63 million primary and secondary teachers in 192 countries are being affected by school and university closures because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

These closings will continue minimally through the end of the 2019–2020 school year. Most governments around the world have temporarily closed schools to prevent the further spread of the COVID-19 virus. These worldwide closings are affecting more than 90% of the world’s student population.

While many schools have changed over to online learning, nearly half of the world has no access to a computer or the internet leaving many students with no educational resources. Even for those who have such resources, for remote learning to work, it usually takes parental oversight.

Because of the need to work from home themselves, not being computer savvy, or not knowing what they need to do to support their child’s online education, adult supervision and direction have also not been available for many children. This means an enormous population of children who are being left further and further behind educationally.

School closures are disproportionately affecting children who already have trouble accessing education, or who are at greater risk of being excluded from educational resources because of belonging to marginalized groups. These include children with disabilities, students in remote locations, migrant children, asylum seekers, refugees, and internally displaced people, minorities and indigenous peoples, girls, and those whose families have lost income because of job cuts.

Education policies that have emphasized online learning since the beginning of the pandemic have highlighted long-standing inequities in terms of internet access. Children living in the most remote places in the world also have the least reliable and slowest internet at the highest prices. In many of these places, there are no connections at all. Some countries have imposed internet shutdowns including Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar, and children in these areas can’t access online learning at all.

The problem isn’t limited to low-income countries. In the U.S. experts estimate that 163 million people don’t have internet access. Without internet access, children can’t take advantage of online learning and school programs.

In March, a Phoenix high school principal found three students under a blanket in the rain, trying to access their school’s wifi to complete their assignments. The principal let them into the school to use the wifi, but this isn’t a solution that school officials can use regularly.

After the pandemic is over, there will be an enormous divide between those children and college students who could continue their education and those who could not. This will occur worldwide and while those in the poorest countries will likely experience the greatest impact, children in countries at all economic levels will be negatively affected. In older adolescents this could affect their employability, continuing to have a negative effect for years to come if not addressed.

Loss of Parents

As the global death toll — currently at over 305,000 as of May 17th– continues to rise, so will the number of children left without one or both parents. Orphaned children and even children who have lost one parent with one remaining are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, girls who lost family members were raped, forced to become child brides, or resorted to prostitution to meet their basic needs. Besides a sharp rise in teenage pregnancy, there was an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and trauma related to violence in these children. Others were left looking after younger siblings while still children themselves.

Job Loss Leading to Child Labor and Child Marriage

Over 12 million girls were estimated to be married each year without their consent before their 18th birthday. Without government support to such families who are struggling to meet their basic needs, these numbers will rise.

Child brides most often come from poor families. Marrying off a child means one less person to support. For families of the groom, bride prices are welcome income, and families will marry off daughters while still very young to avoid higher dowries required with older girls. The rates of child brides around the world are strongly tied to the economic conditions of the country they live in.

It’s been estimated that before the pandemic started over 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 work, with 120 million of them working full time. Like child marriage, child labor also increases when a country has an economic downturn.

It’s been estimated by mid-2020, only a few weeks away from the writing of this article, nearly 200 million jobs will have been lost worldwide because of the pandemic. International labor experts are extremely concerned about this, fearing this massive global job loss is likely to increase rates of child labor and child marriage. It is probable that job loss will grow in the coming months and possibly for longer as beleaguered businesses go bankrupt and close.

In many communities, even before the pandemic began, there were limited economic opportunities, especially for girls. Because of this, families see no reason to educate their girls and instead marry them off.

Child marriage keeps girls, and families impoverished. Girls who marry young are less likely to receive a decent education. Without a strong education, they are less able to earn an income to help get themselves and their families out of poverty. So they aren’t able to help earn money outside the home.

Increased Poverty Could Increase Child Labor

Before the pandemic ever began, there were already about 152 million children engaged in child labor. With the pandemic leading to an economic crisis, parents are likely to fall deeper into poverty. With their inability to find employment, they may feel they have no choice but to send their children out to work since they are more likely to be hired as employers can pay them far less than adults. When children go out looking for work they are at risk of being trafficked for all kinds of forced labor.

Covid-19 increases the risk of child labor in several ways. Besides school closings, movement is severely limited. This makes it harder for social workers and others employed to safeguard children from exploitation to monitor families and support children.

Child labor regulations in some communities are being relaxed. For example, in many places governments facing economic collapse are considering lowering the minimum age for child labor in the coffee sector because of labor shortages. Other sectors are likely to make similar proposals. Once governments have changed these labor laws, they are unlikely to change them back again once the health crisis is over. This could lead to increases in dangerous jobs and the worst types of child labor, including forced labor and human trafficking.

Due to the economic impact of the pandemic, Governments around the world will have a decreased ability to support vulnerable children. It is probable there will be less money for free meal programs, health services, childcare, and other types of social service programs.

Child Abuse and Exposure to Domestic Violence

Even under normal circumstances, regarding violence, children are at the greatest risk in their own homes. The UN secretary-general recently reported a surge in domestic violence linked to Covid-19, including child abuse and partner abuse. Some family stresses related to this such as job loss, isolation, excessive confinement, and anxiety over health and finances, are continuing to increase all types of domestic violence.

Many countries don’t have reporting systems in place, and these are often the nations with weak social institutions where it is expected the impact of the virus on family life will be greater. Partner violence and child abuse are less likely to be detected during the pandemic as isolation decreases the chances for others to notice injuries and notify authorities. Teachers, who are often the first to notice signs of child abuse, no longer have contact with children, and many child protection organizations around the world have stopped conducting home visits due to fear of contagion.

Helping families when abuse is identified is also more difficult during the pandemic. Healthcare services and police are already overburdened. Local social organizations are out of funds or shut down. Many shelters for women and children are closed or have been converted into healthcare facilities and the remaining ones were full shortly after the start of the pandemic or refuse to allow new admissions due to fear of spreading the virus.

Take Away

The COVID-19 health crisis has widened learning inequalities and cause increased harm to already vulnerable youth around the world. These effects won’t evaporate once the pandemic ends. Governments along with local and worldwide organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization need to come together now to create a plan to address the long-term problems faced by children because of the pandemic.

The choices that governments make now are crucial for children in the future. Governments can decrease the worst effects of this health crisis on children in the coming months. They can also institute policies that will improve children’s lives long after the pandemic is over. But without input from everyday citizens, many governments may just sweep the crisis under the rug once the pandemic is over.

It’s up to everyone to make sure that even after the crisis is over that the children affected by problems made worse by the pandemic are addressed quickly and effectively.

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