Children have not been the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims.
Women and children generally bear the brunt of large catastrophes. They are most likely to become refugees, suffer disproportionately from famine, and are left far behind in times of economic downturn.
While children seem to have avoided many of the direct health effects of COVID-19 — at least so far — the crisis is taking its toll on them nonetheless.
All children, of all ages, and in all countries, are being affected, in particular by the socioeconomic impacts and, in some cases, by mitigation measures that may inadvertently do more harm than good. This is a universal crisis and, for some children, the impact will be lifelong. But the harmful effects of this pandemic will not be distributed equally.
They are expected to be most damaging for children in the poorest countries, and in the poorest neighborhoods, and for those in already disadvantaged or vulnerable situations.
As business shut down, some higher-paid employees and executives have been able to rely on savings to weather the storm. For entry-level workers, the loss of even one paycheck was devastating. Even as some areas began to reopen, workers with young children have seen drastic shifts in their day care and schooling options. If in-person schooling was not an option, parents faced dire choices. Should they leave their children unattended? Or should they stay home, lose their jobs, and as a consequence, lose unemployment benefits? And this was the situation for workers in the U.S.
Food Insecurity In small villages in Africa, Asia, and South America, markets were closed by government mandate. In some areas, a single market can be a significant element of the food-supply chain. Even those who had a little money put aside quickly found that they had nowhere to spend it.
In food-insecure households, the desperate math is simple: Feed those who have jobs to go to. School meals that have been a support for low-income families have disappeared as well, and children who fall behind in key nutrients during childhood may suffer deficits that last a lifetime.
UNESCO estimates that 42 to 66 million children could fall into extreme poverty (less than $2/day income) as a result of the pandemic, adding to the 386 million already living at below subsistence level.
Educational Delays Solving the school equation has been difficult even among wealthier nations. Globally 188 countries have closed all public schools for some period of time. Most of them have established distance-learning platforms, but in low-income nations, just 30 percent have taken this step. Of course, even web- , radio- , or television-based coursework relies on access to these media — often well out of reach for the poor.
The number of children affected by this education gap approaches 1.5 billion. Even if a vaccine is approved tomorrow, what will the long-term impacts be? No one can say with certainty.
Other Health Impacts Children who don’t get coronavirus can still get polio, malaria, typhus, and a host of other treatable or preventable diseases. The shutdown threatens access to vaccines and healthcare for everyone, especially low-income children. The UN has forecast that years of progress in reducing infant mortality could be erased by the pandemic.
Exposure to Violence Lockdowns and shelter-in-place measures come with heightened risk of children witnessing or suffering violence and abuse. Children in conflict settings, as well as those living in unsanitary and crowded conditions, such as refugee and IDP settlements, are also at considerable risk. Online platforms for distance learning carry an increased risk of exposure to inappropriate content and online predators.
As far as science knows right now, no one is immune from COVID-19 and no one is immune from its wider effects. As usual, the youngest and most vulnerable will bear a disproportionate burden in dealing with this crisis.