Poverty is one driver of the impending great reversal. The world was not on track for the 2030 goal of eradicating extreme poverty before COVID-19, and progress was slowing. We are now heading in the wrong direction. Based on national poverty lines, UNICEF and Save the Children estimate that the global downturn in economic growth could leave another 117 million children in destitution.
Snapshot numbers on poverty don’t tell the full story. Malnutrition, a close cousin of poverty, has devastating consequences in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life—in utero through to their second birthday—increasing the risk of low birth weight and health problems, compromising the immune system, and damaging cognitive development. These early health problems lead to reduced educational performance and lost income in adulthood. The International Labor Organization has rightly warned that rising household poverty could force millions more children out of school and into child labour.
Progress on child survival, perhaps the greatest development success story of the 21st century, could now stall—or even reverse. Health systems have been hit by lockdowns. The world fixates on ventilators for treating COVID-19, over 800,000 children lose their lives each year to pneumonia for want of basic diagnosis, simple antibiotics, and medical oxygen. Disruption of health services will add to that number.
When it comes to education, COVID-19 has layered a global emergency on a preexisting crisis. Even before the pandemic, progress in reducing the number of children out of school had stalled. Half of the children in school were finishing primary education unable to read a simple sentence. Now the deadly combination of a lockdown that has left 1.3 billion children out of school—many with no access to remote learning—rising child poverty, and cuts to education budgets threatens outright catastrophe.
Protecting children against the collateral damage caused by COVID-19 will take increased investment in community health. It is critical that governments maintain immunization programs and strengthen the integrated health approaches needed to combat malnutrition, pneumonia, malaria, and other infectious diseases.
In fact, a 24-hour emergency phone helpline for children, provided by the Indian government, has seen a massive spike in the number of daily calls ever since the lockdown began on 24 March.
In the first seven days of the shutdown, Childline India Foundation’s number – 1098 (ten-nine-eight) – received about 300,000 calls as against a weekly average of 200,000.
The helpline, that works in 569 of India’s 718 districts and at 128 railway stations, fields thousands of daily calls about child abuse, violence against children, and cases of runaway or missing children.
Now, officials say, hundreds of these daily calls are queries about the pandemic.
The callers, who can either be children themselves or an adult calling on their behalf, sometimes ask for food, but most want to know the symptoms of the infection or where they can get medical assistance in case they are infected. Many children also call to talk about their anxieties or fears about Covid-19.
Child rights activist Bharti Ali says older children are worried because many are stuck in the middle of important school exams and there is no clarity on what will happen next.
In this situation, Dr.Verma says, the parents’ responsibility is enhanced, they have to speak to the children and reassure them.
We are living today with a pandemic that could have been prevented through international cooperation and competent political leadership. There has been enough suffering. Let’s not allow a generation of children to pay for a great reversal in development we can still prevent.
Author: Pooja Kushwaha
Graphics Designer: Surya Pratap Singh