The COVID-19 pandemic is flaring up into a mass humanitarian crisis. Its foremost victim will be innocent children who have had their childhood stolen from them since the pandemic surfaced. Even when/if the health crisis subsides, its ramifications in the form of economic depression would indirectly dent their developmental years for some time to come.
This global threat has also been flagged in the UNICEF’s and the ILO’s combined report — “COVID19 and Child Labour” — which forecasts that the number of people facing extreme poverty could increase by 40 to 60 million this year alone. Due to the probability of “reduced opportunities in the labour market for parents”, millions of children will be at an increased risk of finding themselves in exploitative and hazardous work. In addition to this, the UN’s policy brief — “The Impact of COVID19 on Children” — has observed that “hundreds of thousands of children deaths” would be a dire consequence of the economic recession (the report also highlights the possibility of underestimating the number).
The brief highlights that the direct fallout of the preventive lockdown policy has been on the nutritional health of the 368.5 million school children in 143 countries — where schools were shut due to the lockdown — who relied on school meals as a daily source of nutrition. While over two-thirds of developed countries have adopted distance learning, the participation rate amongst the low-income countries is a mere 30 per cent. Limited access to high-speed internet and sparse power supply are the biggest deterrents to distance learning in such countries, directly impacting their literacy rate and the future bank of human capital.
Opinion | Children and the pandemic
The situation in India is a mirror reflection of, if not worse than, the world’s current scenario. How can we forget the haunting images — of a child, fast asleep and clinging on to the suitcase being dragged by his migrant mother on foot to their native village, or of a toddler trying to wake up his dead mother lying on a railway platform? What wrong did the little souls do to deserve such hardships?
Acknowledging the adversities being inflicted on our future generation, Save The Children foundation conducted a survey across 16 states with over 7,000 respondents to assess the impending catastrophe unfolding in households. Of these, 62 per cent had a child who was less than six years old at home. The survey found that knowledge about the virus was limited.
For instance, only 26 per cent knew to stay away from a person exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, thereby exposing themselves and their children to the risk of contracting the virus. Another practice that can potentially endanger the health of a child and vulnerable family members is neglecting WASH behaviour — over 50 per cent of the households admitted to not cleaning their hands before feeding their child and after cleaning child excreta, while 5 per cent respondents resorted to unhygienic hand-washing. Although children are not severely affected by COVID-19 (till now), even mild illness could put their family under financial distress, just like an unplanned nationwide lockdown has done.
The lockdown left households — income from labour work, salaries, wages and commission is the primary source of income for 60 per cent of households in the survey — struggling to make ends meet. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the monthly unemployment rate in May was 23.49 per cent as against 8.74 per cent in March. When construction activities came to a halt, the daily-wage labourers were forced to depend on the mercy of others for food, whereas industrial workers had to fall back on their savings.
According to the survey, 70 per cent of households relied on their past savings while over 40 per cent of households availed loans or sold assets to manage their home. The condition of such households may not improve after the Supreme Court held that no coercive action would be taken against private firms for non-payment of wages during the lockdown (Ficus Pax Pvt Ltd vs Union of India, June 12).
It added that the employer and employee must negotiate amongst themselves issues regarding payment of wages, allowing exploitation of such employees at the hands of private firms. In return, the reduced and restricted sources of income and unemployment would compel parents to engage their children in labour — the survey noted that 22 per cent of households had children working at or outside their home, with urban households recording worse performance than rural ones.
There is a clear correlation between limited household income and availability of ration at home. As estimated by the survey, 72 per cent of households had partial or no access to essential food items during the lockdown. Half of the urban households and 27 per cent of rural households had food sufficient to last for less than seven days.
The unavailability of food has a clear domino effect on the health of children and has been worsened due to the inefficient service delivery of take-home rations (THR) and mid-day meals under the Integrated Child Development Schemes. While only 17 per cent of households were able to access THR, the shutting down of schools deprived 43 per cent of households the mandated mid-day deals. Keeping in mind that presently India has 37.9 per cent children (under five years of age) stunted and 20.8 per cent children (under five years of age) wasted — both percentages being the highest in developing countries, such numbers portray a poverty and hunger-stricken future for our nation.
In March-April alone, “CHILDLINE 1098” responded to 4.6 lakh calls, displaying the seriousness of the problems facing children. While 30 per cent of these calls were related to pandemic-induced problems of shortage of food and transport, 9,385 calls received by frontline workers were requests related to child labour, trafficking, abuse and child marriage. As the economic slowdown becomes more severe, and involuntary poverty unravels, such distress calls would unsurprisingly become rampant — perfectly seasoning the dish of disaster waiting at our doorsteps.
Before things get out of hand, the government and civil society must get into top gear to protect underprivileged families and their children from starvation. There is an urgent requirement to put money in the hands of the impoverished to support them during the pandemic. This has been the refrain of the Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee. Further, the government must tighten the implementation of its critical schemes related to nutrition, food security and healthcare. Its latest decision to extend the Ayushman Bharat scheme to migrant workers across states is laudable. However, there is much left to be desired of the primary healthcare system. Concerning education, civil society must innovate and allow the less privileged equal access to education.
As for us, the common public, open your heart and be more compassionate, for humanity needs to stand the test of time. The next time when someone knocks on your door for food or help, remember s/he has a child to feed at home. Don’t let that innocent soul bear the brunt of our insensitivity.
This article appeared in the print edition on June 27 under the title “For the sake of our children.” This article first appeared in the print edition on June 27 under the title “For the sake of our children.” The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India, and member governing council, Save The Children. He holds a PhD in child development.