The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is of a scale most people alive today have never seen. Worldwide, the outbreak is claiming lives and livelihoods as health systems buckle, borders close and families struggle to stay afloat.
Communities across the globe are rising to the challenge – from health workers risking their lives to fight the virus, to young people deploying innovative ways to share public health messages.
Yet, 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.
Without urgent action, this health crisis risks becoming a child-rights crisis.
Without urgent action, this health crisis risks becoming a child-rights crisis. Disruptions to society have a heavy impact on children: on their safety, their well-being, their future. Only by working together can we keep millions of girls and boys – including those who have been uprooted by conflict, children living with disabilities and girls at risk of violence – healthy, safe and learning.
UNICEF calls for swift global action to:
1. Keep children healthy
International efforts to bolster health systems – by ensuring supplies and protective equipment reach affected communities, and training health workers to prevent, diagnose and treat coronavirus disease – will go a long way to fight the virus. But overburdened health systems threaten more than those who fall ill with COVID-19.
In the poorest parts of the world, children in need of basic yet essential services – including those to protect against diseases like pneumonia, malaria and diarrhoea – are at risk of not receiving them. As health systems stretch, infants and children will lose their lives to preventable causes.
UNICEF 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. Our response to COVID-19 must be one that strengthens health systems for the long run.
2. Reach vulnerable children with water, sanitation and hygiene
Protecting ourselves and others through proper handwashing and hygiene practices has never been more important. But for many children, basic water and hygiene facilities remain out of reach.
Some children are cut off from safe water because they live in remote areas, or in places where water is untreated or polluted. Other children lack access to facilities because they are without a home, living in a slum or on the street.
UNICEF calls upon governments to prioritize these children. And we are urgently appealing for funding and support so that we can reach more girls and boys with basic water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.
3. Keep children learning
As schools around the world close to prevent the spread of COVID-19, parents, caregivers and educators have responded in stride, finding new ways to keep children learning. But not all girls and boys have access to the Internet, books or school supplies.
We must do more to ensure all children have equal access to learning. UNICEF calls upon governments to scale up home learning options, including no-tech and low-tech solutions, and prioritize Internet connectivity in remote and rural areas. With more than 800 million children out of school, now is not the time to divert national funding for education. UNICEF and partners will continue to work together to bridge the digital divide and keep children learning, no matter where they are.
4. Support families to cover their needs and care for their children
The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 will be felt hardest by the world’s most vulnerable children. Many already live in poverty, and the consequences of COVID-19 response measures risk plunging them further into hardship.
As millions of parents struggle to maintain their livelihoods and income, governments must scale up social protection measures – programmes and policies that connect families to life-saving health care, nutrition and education.
Social protection includes cash transfers and support for food and nutrition. It includes governments helping to protect jobs and working with employers to adequately support working parents.
Without urgent action to mitigate the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak and response, tens of millions of children already living on the edge of hardship will fall into poverty.
5. Protect children from violence, exploitation and abuse
As communities are disrupted, children already at risk of violence, exploitation and abuse will find themselves even more vulnerable.
Social and economic turmoil will heighten girls’ risk of early marriage, pregnancy and gender-based violence. With isolation, children facing violence in the home or online will be farther from help. And the stress and stigma of illness and financial strain will exacerbate volatile family and community situations.
We must prevent this pandemic from turning into a crisis of child protection. 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. We must support children who may be temporarily separated from their parents due to illness, and work together to prepare for a surge in those seeking remote protection and mental health solutions.
6. Protect refugee and migrant children, and those affected by conflict
Every day, refugee children, migrant children and children affected by conflict face unspeakable threats to their safety and well-being – and this in the absence of a pandemic. For many of these girls and boys, access to basic health care and facilities is extremely limited, while cramped living conditions make social distancing unfeasible.
Humanitarian needs must not be forgotten during the COVID-19 response. The United Nations Secretary-General has called for a global ceasefire to focus our fight on a common enemy, one that knows no borders. Health systems in war-ravaged countries are already on the brink of collapse. It is up to the global community to come together in support of the most vulnerable children – those torn from their families and homes – to uphold their rights and protect them from the spread of the virus.
What is UNICEF doing?
Our response to the coronavirus disease must build a better future for every child. Across the globe, UNICEF is working with communities, governments and partners to slow the spread of COVID-19 and minimize the social and economic impacts on children and their families.
We commit to:
- Working with governments, authorities and global health partners to ensure vital supplies and protective equipment reach the most vulnerable communities.
- Prioritizing the delivery of life-saving medicines, nutrition and vaccines, and working closely with governments and logistics networks to mitigate the impact of travel restrictions on the delivery of these supplies.
- Working with partners to urgently distribute water, sanitation and hygiene facilities to the most vulnerable communities.
- Distributing vital public health messaging and advice to slow the transmission of the virus and minimize mortality.
- Supporting governments to keep schools safe and ensure children continue to learn.
- Providing advice and support to parents, caregivers and educators to support home and remote learning, and working with partners to design innovative education solutions.
- Providing guidance to employers on how best to support working parents, and designing new social protection solutions that ensure the poorest households can access critical funding.
- Providing peer-to-peer learning and information sharing between young people to support their mental health and combat stigma, xenophobia and discrimination.
- Stepping up our work with refugee and migrant children and those affected by conflict to ensure they are protected from COVID-19.