A six-point plan to protect our children

Global coordination is urgently needed to prevent the COVID-19 crisis from becoming a child-rights crisis.

A woman in Indonesia feeds her one-year-old son during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
11 November 2020


In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, governments around the world have mobilized billions of dollars to save their economies. But there is another impending and devastating loss if we do not act: a lost generation of children.

Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals is slipping backwards, and children continue to pay the steepest price. Without coordinated, global action to prevent, mitigate and respond to the effects of the pandemic, the consequences for children now, and for the future of our shared humanity, will be severe.

This six-point plan proposes a set of practical and concrete actions to reunite the world around a common cause: the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

To do so, decision makers must start by listening to children and young people and including them in decision-making. It is they – especially girls; children facing poverty, exclusion, or violence; those with disabilities; children affected or displaced by humanitarian crisis; and children without parental care – who will live with the impact of this pandemic for decades to come. UNICEF calls for global action to:


1.    Ensure all children learn, including by closing the digital divide

At their peak, nationwide school closures disrupted the learning of 91 per cent of students worldwide. Marginalized children suffer the heaviest burden: Some 463 million young people were not able to access remote learning during school shutdowns. What’s more, previous shutdowns demonstrate that children who are out of school for extended periods, especially girls, are less likely to return.

UNICEF asks governments and our partners to:

  • Prioritize the reopening of schools: Take all measures possible to reopen schools safely and keep them open.
  • Increase education funding and ensure equal access to quality, violence-free education so every child learns. This will require a focus on the most marginalized children, including girls, children under attack and on the move, children with disabilities, and children living in rural communities or without access to the internet.
  • Close the digital divide by connecting all children and young people to the internet by 2030 and reaching 3.5 billion children and young people with safe, quality, accessible and equitable online learning.
  • Protect schools and places of learning from attack, and hold perpetrators of these attacks to account.

2.    Guarantee access to health and nutrition services and make vaccines affordable and available to every child

A child survival crisis looms, with the children at greatest risk of hunger and disease now seeing their already-fragile health and food systems buckle under the strain of COVID-19. A fragmented and inequitable response to both treating and vaccinating against COVID-19 only risks prolonging the pandemic.

UNICEF asks governments and our partners to:

  • Urgently ensure the continuity of key health and nutrition services for children and young people – especially routine immunization, prioritizing the hardest to reach.
  • Unite to fight the spread of misinformation and build back confidence in routine immunization.
  • Collect gender-, age- and disability-disaggregated data on children and young people, including for those who have contracted COVID-19, and invest in research to better understand its impact on their health and well-being. 
  • Ensure every child and young person has equal and affordable access – regardless of where they live – to COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines as part of a comprehensive package of essential care.
  • Ensure any new funding expands access to other essential health services for children and young people, including by training and supporting health-care workers.

3.    Support and protect the mental health of children and young people and bring an end to abuse, gender-based violence, and neglect in childhood

The world is waking up to the extent – and lasting impacts – of child abuse and neglect. But the COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated violence, exploitation, and abuse as children are cut off from key support services while simultaneously suffering the additional stress placed on families in turmoil. Girls are particularly vulnerable, with child marriage and adolescent pregnancy already on the rise.

UNICEF asks governments and our partners to: 

  • Integrate sustainable child mental health and psychosocial support funding in all global humanitarian responses and commit to increased multi-year funding to better meet the protection needs of children in crisis.
  • Prioritize the prevention of and response to gender-based violence in global humanitarian action, increasing funding for gender-specific interventions.
  • Invest in gender-sensitive mental health and psychosocial support for children, young people and their caregivers:
    • Provide parenting support to all those who need it and strengthen child helplines and other child-focused reporting mechanisms.  
    • Designate formal and informal social service workers and services – including for gender-based violence, child protection, and sexual and reproductive health services – as essential. 
    • Invest in gender-sensitive mental health and psychosocial support services for children, adolescents and their caregivers, including through schools, social services and communities.
A ten-year-old girl in Niger washes her hands at an outdoor pump.
Soraya, 10, washes her hands on the first day back to school after the COVID-19 closing in Niger.

4.    Increase access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene and address environmental degradation and climate change

COVID-19 may not have been directly caused by climate change, but there are strong linkages pointing to environmental degradation as a common underlying risk factor. Unreliable access to safe water due to changes in climate also limits people’s ability to practise life-saving hygiene measures like handwashing. Our vulnerability to this pandemic has only underscored the risk of not taking immediate action to protect against environmental degradation and climate change.

UNICEF asks governments and our partners to: 

  • Guarantee universal access to clean water and handwashing for children and families through national policies, private sector cooperation, community engagement and behaviour-change initiatives. 
  • Invest in climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services in homes, schools, hospitals and public spaces to make communities better prepared for future pandemics and other shocks.
  • Integrate child rights into key national climate change and adaptation strategies, policies and planning documents, including the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), as well as COVID-19 response and recovery plans and budgets.
  • Continue to pursue, implement and monitor climate and environmentally focused targets outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. 
  • Teach children and young people about climate change, the environment and responsible and sustainable consumption and production.

5.    Reverse the rise in child poverty and ensure an inclusive recovery for all

The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 threatens to hit children the hardest, with the number of children living below their national poverty lines expected to soar by 140 million by the end of the year. Economic crises are often followed by cuts to government spending, including on programmes for children. If the world repeats this pattern in the wake of COVID-19, poverty and deprivation among children will continue to rise, even after the immediate crisis has waned. An inclusive recovery plan is imperative to prevent countless more children from reaching levels of poverty unseen for many years.

UNICEF asks governments to: 

  • Marshal global resources to ensure an inclusive, gender-sensitive recovery, and support national fiscal responses that prioritize children and their families:
    • Maintain or increase overseas aid commitments, identifying context-specific new financing options and direct funding to those countries most affected and least able to take on new lending.
    • Act on debt relief, including extending current debt service suspension to middle-income countries. Ensure coordinated action covering all creditors to restructure and, where necessary, reduce debt.
    • Include investment in key services for children and young people as part of domestic stimulus packages and ring-fence existing spending on the most vulnerable children.
  • Expand resilient social protection programmes for the most vulnerable children and their families, including cash transfers for every child and child-friendly services like affordable, quality childcare. 

6.    Redouble efforts to protect and support children and their families living through conflict, disaster and displacement

Even before the pandemic, 2020 was set to see more people than ever in need of humanitarian assistance. COVID-19 has compounded the vulnerabilities of migrant, displaced, and refugee children, as well as those living in crisis-affected countries. And whether the result of active conflict or new pandemic restrictions, it is becoming harder to reach the most vulnerable children with essential and life-saving services. COVID-19 must not become an excuse to divert attention from these children.

UNICEF asks governments to: 

  • Increase and maintain funding for emergencies to prevent multiple, catastrophic and protracted crises and to save children’s lives, alleviate their suffering and preserve their dignity. In all humanitarian responses, prioritize child rights and child protection, in line with the Core Commitments for Children.
  • Ensure immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access. 
  • End attacks on children and on civilian infrastructure critical for their survival, such as water, sanitation, and health-care facilities and personnel. Hold the perpetrators of these attacks to account.
  • Include internally displaced, refugee and migrant children in national systems, policies and plans – starting with COVID-19 recovery and response efforts.
  • Fight the virus, not each other. Implement and uphold the United Nations Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire. 
Three children in Syria wear hand-sewn face masks amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
In Syria, children wear face masks sewn by women at a camp for internally displaced persons in Idlib Province.

What is UNICEF doing to support children during COVID-19? 

Our response to the coronavirus disease must reimagine a world fit for every child. History has shown that UNICEF, together with partners, has the experience and reach to improve the lives of millions of children and their families. We were there for the post-World War II refugee crisis – and have responded to every natural disaster, armed conflict, famine and disease since.   

And we are here now, in 192 countries and territories, 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 are:

  • 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 – including by supporting the COVAX initiative and preparing for a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Working with partners to urgently distribute water, sanitation and hygiene facilities to the most vulnerable communities. 
  • Ensuring the continuity of key health and nutrition services – including routine immunization – focusing on the most vulnerable children.
  • Distributing vital public health messaging and advice to slow the transmission of the virus and minimize mortality. 
  • Supporting governments to prioritize schools in their reopening plans and take all possible measures to reopen safely. 
  • Providing advice and support to parents, caregivers and educators to support home and remote learning, where schools remain closed, and working with partners to design innovative education solutions. 
  • Working with partners to bridge the digital divide and bring internet connectivity to 3.5 billion children and young people by 2030. 
  • 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 children, adolescents and young people to support their mental health and combat stigma, xenophobia and discrimination. 
  • Working with governments, authorities and other partners to ensure child rights and child protection measures are embedded in the immediate COVID-19 response and longer-term recovery planning.
  • Stepping up our work with refugee and migrant children and those affected by conflict to ensure they are protected from COVID-19. 
  • Supporting meaningful child participation in the development and implementation of programmes responding to COVID-19.