India most threatened of losing a  generation; Post pandemic world for children is frightening

Impact of COVID-19 crisis on lives of children in India was far worse than most of countries in the world, because India’s share in global burden was already unacceptably high in start of pandemic

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
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Gyan Pathak/IPA

The impact of COVID-19 crisis on the lives of children in India has been far worse than most of the countries of the world, because the country’s share in the global burden was already unacceptably high in the beginning of the pandemic. With neonatal mortality of 590,000 per year India was accounting 23 per cent, under 5 mortality of 960,000 accounting 17 per cent, and stunting of 47.7 million children accounting 27 per cent of the global burden. About 25 million households did not have toilets while 560 million have no access to improved water connection.

COVID-19 has changed life everywhere in the world. However, in India, it has triggered a negative chain reaction hurting the most disadvantaged section of the population. According to a survey conducted in August and September by UNICEF, economic condition of people in the country was very bad. About 53 per cent people had reported their condition ‘bad’ compared to 17 per cent in the pre lockdown period. It was still high despite the opening up of the economy started from June 1. The people who suffered the most included about half of the casual workers, 62 per cent female headed families, and 64 per cent of the home returnee.

In this situation, children had to suffer silently for multiple reasons. They are still suffering in a way that can be classified as ‘Child Rights Crisis’. Though 660 million children and their families reached by the UNICEF with COVID specific message, 3.6 million people across India reached with critical WASH supplies, 2.5 million healthcare workers trained in Infection Prevention and Control, 44.4 million children with education initiatives, 19.7 million children and women receiving essential healthcare, 61.8 million people have been engaged in activities that facilitate two-way communication, over 333,000 children and their caregivers have been provided with psychological support as a result of UNICEF’s support and 102,400 children between 6 to 59 months have been admitted for treatment of SAM, a huge gap still remains.

Over 290 million children in the country are out of school because their schools are closed under the lockdown orders. It prevented many of the children from the mid-day meal that they were being provided in their schools. The extremely poor persons, which are substantially increased due to many people sliding from lower middle class into below poverty line, could not cope with the new situation of their joblessness. They are therefore sending their children into labour. Now, there is no guarantee that such children would ever be able to return to schools.

When schools were closed, government tried to encourage students to read online or through TV. Many schools started this mode of teaching. Students were provided links. However, many of the families did not have, or still do not have smart phones for their children. Many families were not able to even pay for their recharge. There are connectivity problems both of electricity and internet. There are lessons on TV too, but many of the households do not have even TV sets. Fathers, mothers, or guardians of millions of students have lost their jobs due to which they are unable to support the new kind of medium of education. It is still not known when schools and educational institutions would reopen, and how many of the students would actually be able to return to schools.

This new scenarios indicates the digital divide. It is going to breed inequality among the children. The children from the poor families are under threat of being losing their future vis a vis the children from the privileged families. The Divide is real and alarming. Only 1 in 4 children have access to digital learning in India. The guardians of the children were not sure about their children going back to school after the pandemic, the Community Based Monitoring (CBM) findings have revealed. In urban districts, ‘do not know response is as high as 27 per cent compared to rural areas’ 11 per cent. Around 40 per cent mothers stated that their children were using smart phone, and only 28 per cent mothers reported that they were helping their children in studying.

Not only poverty, but also violence has been on the increase. Families are resorting to negative coping mechanism including child labour and child marriage. Both are on the increase. There is an alarming situation. The UNICEF has reported that they reached 333,000 children with psychological support, while 4 million calls of children in distress have been assisted.

A report released just before the World Children’s Day (November 20) by UNICEF has suggested six-point plan to respond, recover, and reimagine a post-pandemic world for every child, which is most relevant for India. We and our children have never been under so much risk, but worse is to come as the global crisis unfolds. Risks to children are increasing with the economic fallout on government and household budgets and the private sector. We must protect the decades of past investment on children, the report emphasized.

This is not about a return to the way things were. Children will never accept a return to ‘normal’ after the pandemic because ‘normal’ was never good enough. Our post-pandemic rebuilding must meet the scale of this moment by overcoming our differences – and working across generations – to rebuild a world we want our children to grow up in, Executive Director of UNICEF Henrietta H Fore has rightly commented on the situation, which India must take note of and do the needful in shortest possible time.

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