The Poor Children In A Pandemic

Aarshiya Basu

The novel Coronovirus has sent the world into a chaos. It is so unprecedented that many of us still are wondering, while sitting at home, whether this is a dream or not. Is this is just a bad dream and we will wake up to a “normal day” tomorrow and live our “normal lives” again? Sadly, the deadly virus sets a new precedent and we are having a “new normal” accosting all of us. With widespread containment measures, stalling all economic and social activities, the world will never be the same, at least for the foreseeable future. While this is being addressed as nature’s way of damage repair and reclaiming itself from the prolonged tortures of human beings, the fallouts that the economies and human lives will face will definitely not be pleasant. It is a privilege to be at home and research on the Covid-19 issues while many of the world’s population are facing the worst times of their lives. Specially the children; the poverty struck children.

Whilst the coronavirus has so far reported less severe cases among children, it can decimate their lives in a different way. The ‘physical distancing’ measures increasingly result in parents not being able to work, as usual businesses are rapidly grinding to a halt across the world.  Meanwhile traditional care providers – schools and nurseries – have had to close. Even as the spread of the virus slows in some countries, its social toll will come fast and hard. And in many places, it will come at the expense of the most vulnerable children.  Such children are in millions, living in vulnerable communities in countries all around the world apprehending the sufferings from the far reaching economic and social impacts of the measures needed to contain the pandemic.

 At the forefront are millions of girls and boys including those who have been uprooted by conflict, children living with disabilities and girls at risk of violence. Keeping in mind this population group, this health crisis risks becoming a child-rights crisis. Many children around the world, including those displaced by conflict, live in camps, informal settlements and on the streets. For them maintaining social distancing norms and complying with basic hygiene like washing hands is very difficult. Again, homes are not always a safe haven, particularly in times of financial stress. When families that are already dependent on casual, informal jobs, are laid off or are forced to isolate because of the COVID-19 outbreak, they have little to fall back on.  They have more debts than savings, and cannot afford to stockpile food and other necessities. A break in income can have devastating consequences. For families in poverty, missing work implies missing meals, making it hard to comply with government and health advice. These parents helplessly can’t set a good example for children who are looking up to them and can’t support them either. Many schools in poor countries are subsidized by the government to offer free meals during the school hours but with closing of schools, such options are not available now either. For children living with domestic abuse and gender-based violence, staying home can be a risk in itself.

The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has chalked out a multipronged plan to help these vulnerable children in this crisis. It calls on governments and partners to sustain life-saving maternal, newborn and child health services. This means continuing to meet the urgent needs posed by COVID-19, while carrying forward critical health interventions, like funding for vaccinations, that ensure children survive and thrive. Hospitals should have provisions for treatment of other health issues -diseases like pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea- so that infants and children will not lose their lives to preventable causes.

Some children are cut off from safe water because they live in remote areas, or in places where water is untreated or polluted, like those living in slums or streets. With maintenance of good hygiene practices more important than ever, more girls and boys should be reached out to, with clean water and basic hygiene facilities. UNICEF calls upon governments to prioritize these universal sanitization measures.

As educators have come up with unconventional ways to keep the teaching-learning process going amidst the crisis, many children across the world do not have access to books or school supplies, let alone the internet. Governments have to scale up home learning options, pursuing no-tech and low-tech solutions to bridge the digital-gap, and prioritize internet connectivity in remote and rural areas. With more than 800 million children out of school, now is the time to direct national funding for education and not lag behind on constructing a brighter future for all of us.

As millions of parents struggle to maintain their livelihoods and income, tens of millions of children already living on the edge of hardship will fall into poverty, unless urgent steps are taken to combat the socio-economic impacts of this outbreak. Government must adopt security measures to protect jobs and to adequately support working parents. Instead of making direct cash transfers, there should be a provision for “conditional cash transfers” to make sure the money is spent for the intended purpose and not diverted into other areas of self-interest by the poor people, along with support for food and nutrition. The government really has to work credibly and transparently in these respects for the sake of overall welfare.

As already mentioned, while this “stay at home” policy is for the benefit of people at large, we have many little Samaritans who are putting their own lives at stake to not flout this protocol- the children who are subject to domestic violence and exploitation. They would rather be anywhere else but at home, right? Governments need to account for the unique risks of girls and vulnerable children, including those who face discrimination and stigma, when planning for social distancing and other COVID-19 response measures.

On a usual basis, refugee and migrant children and those affected by conflict, face unspeakable threats to their safety and well-being – and this in the absence of a pandemic. Access to basic health care facilities is undoubtedly very limited for them and their bare survival in cramped living conditions highlights the infeasibility of social distancing. It goes without saying that health systems in war-ravaged countries are already on the brink of collapse.  The United Nations Secretary-General has called for a global ceasefire to focus our fight on a common enemy, instead of against each other. It is up to the global community to prioritize humanitarian needs during this pandemic above all else, to come together in support of these children separated from their families and homes and uphold their rights and protect them from this virus.

We can’t paint a fine picture of the future barring the children of today, and expect it to come true.  They are the forerunners and makers of the future. For that, they need to be taken care of, protected, nurtured and educated. It is important to mention Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist who has received international acclamation for protesting against climate change, has started a fundraiser with Danish NGO Human Act to support UNICEF’s work to protect children’s lives during the Corona pandemic. The 17 year old says “We must now all act together to protect children and end the devastating consequences of the coronavirus. Children are the future and they must be protected.”  Thunberg is known for her youth and her straightforward speaking manner, both in public and to political leaders and assemblies. Despite having nemeses, she has fans among all age groups with many children admiring her as a role model. Keeping aside controversial opinions, she is a good example of a human for the future and we can have several others like her if proper plans are crafted and executed now. Crises and pandemics wreak havoc globally; the children should not be the worst sufferers.

Aarshiya Basu, MA Student, St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata

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Aug 10, 2020

Aarshiya Basu

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