Plight of children on UNICEF spotlight

The United Nations Children's Fund has appealed to governments and partners to ensure all children have access to nutrition and health services amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic.

The UN agency made the appeal following the release of its report titled “Averting a Lost COVID Generation”, which comprehensively outlined the dire and growing consequences on children as the pandemic dragged on.

In a media statement, whose release coincided with the publishing of the report, UNICEF said that while symptoms among infected children remain mild, infections are rising and the longer-term impact on the education, nutrition and well-being of an entire generation of children and young people can be life-altering.

UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, said that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a persistent myth that children are barely affected by the disease.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. “While children can get sick and can spread the disease, this is just the tip of the pandemic iceberg. 

“Disruptions to key services and soaring poverty rates pose the biggest threat to children. 

“The longer the crisis persists, the deeper its impact on children’s education, health, nutrition and well-being. The future of an entire generation is at risk.”

The report stated that as of 3 November age-disaggregated data showed that children and adolescents under 20 years of age in 87 countries accounted for 1 in 9 of COVID-19 infections or 11 per cent of the 25.7 million infections reported by these countries. 

More reliable, age-disaggregated data on infection, deaths and testing is needed to better understand how the crisis impacts the most vulnerable children and guide the response, added the UNICEF report.

And while children can transmit the virus to each other and to older age groups, there is strong evidence that with basic safety measures in place, the net benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the costs of closing them, the report notes. 

Schools are not a main driver of community transmission and children are more likely to get the virus outside of school settings, emphasised the report’s findings.

COVID-related disruptions to critical health and social services for children pose the most serious threat to children, according to the report. 

Using new data from UNICEF surveys across 140 countries, it notes that: Around one-third of the countries analyzed witnessed a drop of at least 10 per cent in coverage for health services such as routine vaccinations, outpatient care for childhood infectious diseases, and maternal health services. Fear of infection is a prominent reason.

There is a 40 per cent decline in the coverage of nutrition services for women and children across 135 countries. As of October this year 265 million children were still missing out on school meals globally. And more than 250 million children under the age of 5 could miss the life-protecting benefits of Vitamin A supplementation programmes.

Furthermore, 65 countries reported a decrease in home visits by social workers in September compared to the same time last year.

And more alarming data from the report include: As of November 2020, 572 million students are affected across 30 country-wide school closures – 33 per cent of the enrolled students worldwide.

“An estimated 2 million additional child deaths and 200,000 additional stillbirths could occur over a 12-month period with severe interruptions to services and rising malnutrition.

“An additional 6 to 7 million children under the age of 5 will suffer from wasting or acute malnutrition in 2020, a 14 per cent rise that will translate into more than 10,000 additional child deaths per month – mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

“Globally, the number of children living in multidimensional poverty – without access to education, health, housing, nutrition, sanitation or water – is estimated to have soared by 15 per cent or an additional 150 million children by mid-2020.”

To address this public health crisis, the UNICEF has urged Governments and partners to ensure all children learn, including by closing the digital divide; guarantee access to nutrition and health services and make vaccines affordable and available to every child; support and protect the mental health of children and young people and bring an end to abuse, gender-based violence and neglect in childhood; increase access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene and address environmental degradation and climate change; reverse the rise in child poverty and ensure an inclusive recovery for all; and redouble efforts to protect and support children and their families living through conflict, disaster and displacement.

Ms Fore added that with this year’s World Children’s Day they are asking governments, partners and the private sector to listen to children and prioritise their needs.

“As we all reimagine the future and look ahead toward a post-pandemic world, children must come first.” 

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