COVID continues to deepen poverty, entrenching inequality and threatening children's rights like never before

Percentage of children living in multidimensional poverty just before pandemic was 46-48 per cent which has increased to about 52 per cent. The social protection level is very low

 Representative Photo
Representative Photo

Dr Gyan Pathak

While the number of children hungry, out of school, abused, living in poverty or forced into marriage is going up, the number of children with access to healthcare, vaccines, sufficient food and essential services is going down globally. The widespread impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to deepen increasing poverty, entrenching inequality and threatening the rights of children like never before.

A new UNICEF report released just before the organization’s landmark anniversary on December 11, has further revealed that the pandemic has pushed a staggering 100 million more children into poverty, which is a 10 per cent increase since 2019, that is nearly two children every second since mid march 2020.

The percentage of children living in multidimensional poverty just before the pandemic was 46-48 per cent which has increased to about 52 per cent. The social protection level is very low. Only one in 4 children have presently access to any form of child or family benefit. Moreover, even in a best-case scenario, the recovery to pre-pandemic levels will take up to eight years. And for the best-case scenario to become a reality, we must take action now, says the report.

The Executive Director of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore has sounded an alarm, and said, “The World must wake up. We are on the edge of an abyss – and moving in the wrong direction. The world stands at a crossroads. We have a decision to make. Do we rally and unite to protect years of progress on child rights? Or do we allow the unequal recovery from COVID-19 to further marginalize the disadvantaged and increase inequality even more?”

The report titled “Preventing a Lost Decade: Urgent Action to Reverse the Devastating Impact of COVID-19 on Children and Young People” while mentioning the continuing rolling back progress on key childhood challenges such as poverty, health, and access to education, said that it was “biggest global crisis for children since UNICEF was founded 75 years ago.

Furthermore, some 63 million children are now living in “monetary poor” households. It is an increase from 32 per cent in 2019 to 25 per cent in 2021. During this period more than 23 million have missed out on essential vaccines, the largest number in over a decade. The missed out number was an increase of nearly 4 million from 2019, the highest number since 2009. Out of these 23 million, 60 per cent are in only 10 countries of the world including India.

Children’s diets have deteriorated, and families struggle to find ways to find enough food and safe water for their children. By September 2021, schoolchildren around the world have lost an estimated 1.8 trillion hours of in-person learning which will have profound long-term, unequal social and economic effects.

50 million children suffer from wasting, the most life-threatening form of malnutrition, and this figure could increase by 9 million by 2022.

Severity of the situation can only be imagined if we keep in mind that prior to the pandemic, roughly one billion children worldwide suffered at least one severe deprivation, such as lack of access to education, health, housing, nutrition, or sanitation and water. The unequal recovery is pushing the number even higher.

The report details other areas where backsliding occurred, such as in education. At the peak of the pandemic, more than 1.6 billion students were shut out of schools due to lockdowns and containment measures. Schools were closed worldwide for almost 80 per cent of in-person instruction time during the first year of the crisis.

The pandemic took a toll on the mental health of children. More than 13 per cent of adolescents aged 10 to 19 years are affected by deteriorating mental health. By October 2020, critical mental health services in 93 per cent of the countries were disrupted or halted due to the spread of the pandemic.

People also married off their children in large numbers. In the latest estimate, it has been reported that up to 10 million more child marriages could occur before the end of the decade.

As for child labour, the report said that the number of child labourers has risen to 160 million, a nearly 8.5 million increase in the last four years. Rising poverty means additional 9 million boys and girls are also at risk, or entering into the labour force.

The report has warned of further threats to children beyond the pandemic that jeopardize their rights.

Children living in the conflict zones of the world are specifically mentioned in this regard. The report estimated that about 426 million children globally, or nearly 1 in 5, live in conflict zones that are becoming more intense, with women and girls at the highest risk of conflict-related sexual violence. Eighty per cent of all humanitarian needs are driven by conflict.

There are about 2 billion children in the world and nearly half of them live in countries that are at extremely high risk from the impact of climate change.

More children are displaced than ever before. Last year, more than 82 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced.

It is in this backdrop, Ms. Fore has said, “As we work with the governments, donors and other organizations to begin charting our collective path for the next 75 years, we must keep children first in line for investment and last in live for cuts.”

UNICEF has been calling for investment in social protection, as well as inclusive and resilient recovery for quite some time. Additionally, new approaches are needed to better prevent and respond to crises in order to protect children.

(IPA Service)

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