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COVID-19 Could Reverse Decades of Progress for the World's Children

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

Save the Children conducted the largest global COVID-19 survey of children and their caregivers to determine the full impact of the pandemic since its outbreak. Sharing the key findings, Janti Soeripto, President and CEO of Save the Children, underlines the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on marginalized children.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the mitigation efforts to prevent the spread of the disease are threatening decades of progress to help the world’s most vulnerable children survive and thrive. To determine just how badly the pandemic is affecting children globally, Save the Children conducted the largest and most comprehensive survey of children and their families. We talked directly with children and their caregivers in 37 countries, across 5 continents, to learn how the pandemic is impacting their access to healthcare and education, their mental health, their family finances, and their safety. After hearing firsthand from some 25,000 respondents, it is clear that the pandemic’s effects are rapidly widening the inequality gaps between children.

Our Protect a Generation report found that 89 percent of respondents said COVID-19 has impacted their access to healthcare, medicine, and medical supplies. Forty-five percent of respondents from poor households reported having trouble paying for medical supplies during the pandemic. Sadly, it is predicted that many children will die from preventable causes (measles, diarrhea, pneumonia, malnutrition being the biggest culprits) during the pandemic because access to non-COVID-related healthcare has been a challenge and hasn’t been a priority for the past six months.

Children’s mental health is also suffering. More than eight in 10 of the children surveyed reported an increase in negative feelings, and nearly one third of households had a child, parent, or caregiver who shared there had been physical or emotional violence in their home since the start of the pandemic. Let’s say that again, out loud: in one out of three households, there has been violence reported. This is a, largely invisible, extra pandemic of violence against the most vulnerable.

Physical and mental health impacts are not the only consequences of the pandemic. According to UNICEF, up to 1.6 billion children globally have been unable to attend school in person, which is devastating because we learned through our survey that fewer than 1 percent of children from poor households have access to the internet for distance learning. Additionally, 40 percent of children from poor households said that they need help with their schoolwork, but they don’t have anyone to help them. As a result, more than 8 in 10 children we talked with felt that they were learning little or nothing at all. The ‘digital divide’ was real before Covid-19, now it has become an even bigger impediment to learning and children fulfilling their potential.

Save the Children predicts this unprecedented disruption to children’s education will result in at least 10 million children not returning to school, with girls and the most marginalized and deprived children most affected. Almost two thirds of girls (63 percent) we surveyed reported an increase in household chores and more than half (52 percent) reported an increase in time spent caring for siblings and others since the pandemic began. This prevented the girls from being able to study, at twice the rate of boys. In El Salvador, 15-year-old Dayana said, “My mom worked in a house taking care of babies. Because of the coronavirus, she could no longer go to work. We always did the cleaning but now we have to do it more often to avoid getting sick. People are sad because the coronavirus has changed their lives and they can no longer do what they did before.”

Finally, the COVID-19 health crisis has led to a devastating and wide-reaching financial crisis for families. More than three in four households we surveyed reported an income loss due to the pandemic and help is challenging to find. Seventy percent of respondents who suffered economic losses reported that they had not received government support. Almost two thirds of respondents said that they are finding it difficult to provide their families with meat, dairy products, grains, fruits, and vegetables mostly because these food items are too expensive.

With over 100 years of experience, we know that child poverty leads to a loss of health services and education and puts children at higher risk of violence, including child labor and child marriage. This is why it is critical to listen to the children’s testimonies in this survey and act now.

Amidst all this doom and gloom, it would be easy to get disheartened. I don’t think that is necessary (and it is certainly not helpful!). We actually know what it takes, concretely:

  1. Prioritize funding for children; their education, health and protection needs

  2. Re-imagine the education system: support for teachers, universal connectivity, improved pedagogy for learning remotely are all things that were just interesting ideas before Covid, we are seeing some of these being tested right now.

  3. Increase social protection for the poorest families. Cash works, the evidence is out there. It needs scaling up, sometimes even in high-income countries.

In order to protect the decades of progress made toward the Sustainable Development Goals, it is essential we work with global and local leaders to accelerate the pandemic response, increase access to healthcare, provide social protection, and ensure children continue their education. The future of our world and the next generation depends on our action today.

About the Author:

Janti Soeripto is the President and CEO of Save the Children, a global non-profit that works in the U.S. and 100 countries around the world to ensure that children are healthy, educated and protected. She previously held the positions of deputy CEO and COO of Save the Children International, based in London. Before joining Save the Children, Soeripto spent 15 years with Unilever and was managing director of Kimberly Clark in Indonesia.

The views and opinions of the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Aspen Institute.

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