The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has placed the lives of millions of children in South Asia at risk, according to a recent UNICEF report. Quoting a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the report warned that as many as 8,81,000 children– aged five and under– could die over the next twelve months. A bulk of these deaths are likely to occur in India and Pakistan, the report said.
The report — titled ‘Lives Upended: How COVID-19 threatens the futures of 600 million South Asian Children’ — states that children in these countries are more likely to succumb to established illnesses like measles and pneumonia as public health systems are placed in a precarious position amidst this global health crisis.
The UNICEF report predicts a substantial spike in the number of children living in abject poverty due to the social and economic repercussions of COVID-19 and suggests that the pandemic could push an additional 120 million children below the poverty line within the next six months.
As of 2016, around 240 million children across eight South Asian Countries were living in multi-dimensional poverty. Of these, more than 155 million were found to reside in India alone.
Opinion | Children and the pandemic
“The side-effects of the pandemic, including the lockdown and other measures, have been damaging for children in numerous ways,” said Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia. “But the longer-term impact of the economic crisis on children will be on a different scale entirely. Without urgent action now, COVID-19 could destroy the hopes and futures of an entire generation.”
Impact of the pandemic on healthcare
With state health facilities focussed on mitigating the impact of the deadly virus, many children from poor and marginalised communities are no longer getting the treatment they need for other illnesses. The situation was further aggravated by the imposition of nationwide lockdowns and the subsequent suspension of public transport, the report said.
Research by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that the reassignment of health workers, equipment and facilities as well as the disruption to the global pharmaceutical and medical supply chain caused by the pandemic, has shifted the focus from essential maternal, new-born and child health services.
With maternal and new-born care taking a backseat, over 36,000 mothers could die, the study said. A majority of maternal deaths will be seen in India and Pakistan due to population density and poor public health care systems. Bangladesh and Afghanistan could also witness a significant increase in mortality rates.
Worsening threat of food insecurity
Due to the massive loss of jobs and dwindling incomes, poor families are finding it harder than ever to provide nutritious meals for their children, the UNICEF report says. With food prices rising and disruption to transport links and markets, marginalised and poor populations — particularly those in urban areas — are faced with the growing threat of food insecurity.
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, around 7.7 million children under the age of five were suffering from severe wasting and more than 56 million were stunted. As many as 40 million of these children were in India alone, the report stated.
More than 32,000 children living in remote pockets face an even greater risk. A large number of children, who previously relied on state-run lunch programmes — such as the mid-day meal scheme in India — are no longer benefiting from these government schemes. For many children in South Asia, these were the only meals they received in a day, the report pointed out.
Education of over 247 million school children affected in India
The report stated that the COVID-19 lockdown in India has adversely impacted the education of over 247 million school children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools, apart from the 28 million attending pre-school classes in the countries’ many Anganwadi centres.
The report noted a marked shift to digital avenues for learning, but points out that a glaring digital divide has kept children from vulnerable and marginalised families from continuing their education during the lockdown.
Moreover, in countries like India and Nepal several hundred schools were designated as quarantine accommodation for returning overseas workers and others. Once schools are reopened, communities will have to ensure that these spaces are adequately disinfected, the report read.
UNICEF further drew attention to the strain put on the children of migrant workers in India, who were forced to head back to their homes in rural India — many, even on foot — after the nationwide lockdown was imposed.
“The journey for these children was arduous enough,” said UNICEF India Representative Yasmin Haque. “And many of them have continued to suffer from abuse, uncertainty, stigma and discrimination even after they reached home.”
The report also recorded a marked increase in the number of calls received by the state-run child protection helpline — CHILDLINE, launched by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. “Nearly 10,000 of these were intervention cases which required CHILDLINE staff to reach the children in need of support. Of these 30 per cent were related escalation in violence, child sexual abuse, child marriage and child labour,” the report said.
UNICEF has called on governments across South Asia to continue interventions to provide life-saving vaccinations in response to outbreaks of illnesses like measles, and cholera. It also urged states to protect children against violence by keeping phone helplines open and referral networks functioning.
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