'Children Are the Hidden Victims of This Pandemic'

March 27, 2020

Lockdowns and school closures threaten to deprive children of learning and all the other activities needed to sustain a healthy childhood. They also heighten risks of child exploitation, abuse and neglect. How UNICEF aims to keep child protection top of mind in the global fight against COVID-19.

While the fight against COVID-19 is focused on the health and hygiene front — treating the sick, stopping the spread of infection — UNICEF is also working with partners to protect children from the related effects of lockdowns, school closures and other abrupt changes to daily life.

As necessary as these prevention and containment measures may be, they also threaten to deprive children of learning and all the other activities they need to do to grow and thrive. An estimated 350 million children worldwide are also now missing out on what may be their only nutritious meal of the day: a school lunch.

For the most vulnerable children, heightened risks of violence, exploitation and abuse

And for the most vulnerable children, as restrictions intensify, resources become increasingly scarce and social outlets and support systems vanish, there is also a heightened risk of violence, exploitation and abuse. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, school closures contributed to spikes in child labor, neglect, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies. 

"We know from previous health emergencies that children are at heightened risk of exploitation and abuse when schools are closed, jobs are lost and movement is restricted," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said. "And for the most vulnerable children, we know that the longer they stay away from school, the less likely they are to return."

Mitigating potentially damaging side effects of an aggressive COVID-19 response 

Joining a UN coordinated appeal for support for a COVID-19 global humanitarian response plan, Fore explained why UNICEF is taking a multi-pronged approach — helping to strengthen local health systems to fight the virus, supplying frontline health workers with protective gear and improving access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene while also ramping up assistance in education, child protection and other areas.

"Children are the hidden victims of this pandemic, and we are worried about short-term and long-term impacts on their health and well-being, their development and their prospects," Fore said during a virtual press briefing on March 25.

Steps toward strengthening child protection during the pandemic

On the child protection front, to help authorities get ahead of the issues and keep kids safe, UNICEF, together with its partners in the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, has issued new technical guidance recommending concrete steps be taken as part of the overall pandemic response. These include: 

  • Train health, education and child services staff on COVID-19 related child protection risks — including the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse — and how to safely report concerns
  • Train first responders on how to manage the disclosure of gender-based violence, and collaborate with health care services to support survivors of gender-based violence
  • Increase information sharing on referral and other support services available for children
  • Engage children, particularly adolescents, in assessing how COVID-19 affects them differently to inform programming and advocacy
  • Provide targeted support to interim care centers and families, including child-headed households and foster families, to emotionally support children and engage in appropriate self-care
  • Provide financial and material assistance to families whose income generating opportunities have been affected
  • Put concrete measures in place to prevent child-family separation, and ensure support for children left alone without adequate care due to the hospitalization or death of a parent or caregiver

Iraqi children take their lessons remotely in Baghdad amidst a lockdown to fight the spread of COVID-19. © UNICEF/UNI314201/Arar/AFP

On the education front, UNICEF is well aware that not every household has the resources to support home learning. With this in mind, UNICEF is scaling up support in 145 low- and middle-income countries, helping national governments and local partners develop and launch alternative learning opportunities that are not just online, but can be delivered on the radio or on TV. Other UNICEF-supported interventions include teacher training in psychosocial and mental health support.

"Unless we collectively act now to protect children’s education, societies and economies will feel the burden long after we’ve beaten COVID-19," said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF's global chief of education. "In the most vulnerable communities, the impact will span generations.” 

Don't forget about measles 

To avoid losing ground in the ongoing global fight against measles and other preventable and treatable childhood diseases — a real danger with so much attention focused on COVID-19 — UNICEF is also working to help governments maintain other essential health services, or at least prepare for when they can resume service delivery. Maintaining adequate vaccine supplies and carrying out national immunization campaigns will be particularly challenging during this time. So UNICEF is working with partners to ensure that any children who miss out on their vaccines now can be reached quickly later, once COVID-19 is under control.

"We cannot save one child from COVID-19 and then lose many to pneumonia, measles and cholera," Fore said.

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Top photo: A TV-classroom initiative in North Macedonia helps 7-year-old twins Ana and Kaja learn from home while schools are closed due to the spread of COVID-19. The program — a collaboration between UNICEF, Macedonia’s Ministry of Education and Science and Bureau for Development of Education, children’s television producers OXO and national broadcaster Macedonia Radio and Television — relies on volunteer teachers, many of whom have experience in social-emotional learning techniques. © UNICEF/UNI313747/Georgiev