TORONTO, APRIL 17, 2020 - The COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on the lives of children and youth. There is a perception among many that because children are less likely to experience severe symptoms of COVID-19, they are less affected.
Children are affected by the health impacts on their loved ones and by the fears it raises. But for most children, it is the control measures and the resulting socioeconomic crisis that will have the greatest impacts. School closures, the loss of recreational opportunities, family separation or confinement, disrupted routines and experiences and loss of family income are affecting their physical and mental health, education, development, protection, play, family unity and the income security of young people and their families. In short, the control measures are changing childhood in many respects.
UNICEF Canada is particularly concerned about the heightened impacts on the most vulnerable children, who are more likely to detach from school, fall deeper into poverty, experience deprivations and prolonged toxic stress, and go without the support and protection they need. This is the generation that will bear the greatest impacts over time as the pandemic casts a long shadow, because it affects their development now and they will carry the debt well into their future.
Canada entered the COVID-19 pandemic without resilient conditions for childhood. According to UNICEF Canada:
- 1 in 5 children and youth live in poverty
- 1 in 10 Canadians lack internet connectivity to sustain social connections and schooling – fewer children have access in homes where connection has to be shared with other members
- 1 in 4 go to bed or went to school hungry because there isn’t enough food at home
- 1 in 4 experience abuse at home
- 1 in 4 have symptoms of depression
- 1 in 3 lack basic proficiency in reading and math at age 15
The extent to which their childhoods will rebound or erode depends on what we do now. Their future is now. Canada needs a three-part strategy to lighten the impacts of the pandemic on children and youth and foster their recovery to a better state on the other side. An optimal response to COVID-19 will balance multiple risks and consider the multiple dimensions of impacts on children:
- Child rights impact assessment is an approach used by other countries such as Scotland as a lens for crisis response, to ensure children are considered in decisions and to counter negative impacts of decisions on children. It should be applied at every stage from crisis to recovery, and include the perspectives of young people to understand their experiences and needs, and how they are part of the solution.
- Modelling and data must include a focus on the nature and scale of impacts on young people, including direct perspectives of young people in real time through mechanisms such as U-Report Canada.
1. LIGHTEN THE CRISIS
UNICEF Canada’s rapid child rights impact assessment outlined recommendations for all levels of government to ensure that children are protected from the coronavirus and the control measures. Many of these recommendations are being implemented, and UNICEF Canada is collaborating with partners to provide ongoing guidance and support as conditions evolve, including special measures for children in child welfare.
2. OPEN UP FOR CHILDREN
It is time to deliver new crisis mitigation measures that bridge to an “open up” response. The latest research on COVID-19 indicates that mitigation efforts of varying severity will likely be required through 2021. This will be a defining time for all of us, but children and youth in particular. They cannot wait months or years to return to school, resume physiotherapy, and interact with friends and relatives. We therefore recommend the urgent adaptation of standard physical distancing and lockdown strategies to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic on children. While optimal adaptations will depend on the setting, a guiding principle will be to rebalance the combination of measures to prioritize the restoration and advancement of child-centred services, with a particular focus on equity of access. These services should include informal, physical safe spaces for young people to access supportive relationships and recreational activities, health care and support for schooling, nutrition, mental health and psychosocial services, including those living with disabilities. Maintaining continuity of services will require policymakers to seize this moment to protect children from violence, abuse or exploitation, and classify these services as essential, while integrating health protection measures.
3. RECOVER TO BETTER
How many children recover, how quickly and how well, from the pandemic depends on the current response to the crisis and the timing of an “open up” phase that gives priority to children and youth. Beyond that, it is necessary to ensure that the implementation of special measures does not undermine the well-being and recovery of young people. The state of children and youth in Canada was not optimal before the pandemic, weakening their resilience to it. The future of children and youth in Canada has to be better, sustaining and increasing investment in their well-being and reducing the equity gaps among them, and ensuring they have a bright and resilient future.