From challenge to opportunity, reimagining a stronger future for children in East Asia & the Pacific
An op-ed by Debora Comini, Regional Director, UNICEF East Asia & Pacific
As we start a new year, pinning our hopes for safer and happier times, we realize now more than ever that the world as we know it has changed, turned upside down by COVID-19. In East Asia and the Pacific we continue to see the impact of the pandemic on how we live, work and communicate. Disparities have increased. Children have been forced to rethink their future and aspirations. Their opportunities to thrive have been cut short.
In our region, 491 million children live in countries that reported disruptions to social welfare and vital protection services. A staggering 372 million hours of in-person learning were lost, widening an already troubling learning divide, adding learning loss, mental distress, and more chances of children dropping out of school. Millions of children have missed their first years of education and have never entered a school. Before the pandemic we already had about 2.2 million babies missing their basic immunization jabs and this number kept growing in 2020 and 2021, with more children not protected against preventable illnesses.
But COVID-19 has also forced us to open our minds and quickly learn to operate in a suddenly changed context. It has ignited our search for answers, compressed the time for medical and technological research, accelerated progress in digital solutions.
Prolonged school closures forced us to find alternatives to ensure learning continued through innovation, digital, remote and hybrid solutions. We reimagined education as we have never done before. Governments are now working to digitally upgrade their education systems. Online learning platforms, complementing and supplementing classroom education, have been launched for the first time ever in Lao PDR, Kiribati, and Timor Leste. Itinerant connectivity solutions, flexible child-centered pedagogy, low and high-tech means are used to support children’s learning, including in the most marginalized communities. Indeed, COVID-19 has triggered a digital transformation with the potential for becoming the greatest equalizer for millions of children in East Asia and the Pacific, narrowing geographical, economic, gender and social gaps, giving every child digital access and the digital literacy they need to be fully engaged in modern society.
On the health front, the pandemic forced countries to revamp their systems for COVID-19 vaccination, investing time and resources that will help us strengthen also routine immunization and finally reach all the under-vaccinated, or the zero dose children who have never been vaccinated before. Countries have now higher capacities and better systems in place to reach large populations in a short time even in remote areas, have developed new risk communication and community engagement expertise to provide information, address hesitancy and stimulate demand for vaccines. This is precious capital to build on and protect all children in the region from preventable diseases and death.
The journey is not complete, the systems are still far from adequate to reach each single child in the region and fulfil all their rights, but this speed of innovation can be the basis for a momentous leap forward. As we start 2022, we must hold on to all we have learnt and make the most of the solutions that transformed our lives in the last two years.
I cannot help but marvel at the resilience and courage demonstrated by children as they make it through what is likely the greatest crisis in their lifetime. Adults must now do their part. Ensure that children are first in line for investment and last in line for cuts. Demand an inclusive recovery that benefits and protects every child.
As UNICEF marked in 2021 its 75th anniversary of working for children, the world stands at a crossroads. This moment in history gives us the choice - to reimagine a new world that is fair, safe, and equal for every child.
For further information, please contact: Shima Islam, Regional Communication Specialist, firstname.lastname@example.org