The COVID-19 socio-economic crisis: a blueprint for action
Reimaging social protection systems.
The COVID-19 pandemic is casting a long shadow in countries across the world and has quickly moved beyond a health crisis alone. As the UN Secretary General stated in The Impact of COVID-19 on Children: “Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims.” To understand the complex socio-economic impact of COVID19 on children and their families, we must look at three different streams.
The first stream is that of the virus itself. Despite low infection rates in children, the impacts can be deeply felt. Stories of children like 5-year-old Yuanyuan, whose family all tested positive for COVID-19, are sadly not a rare occurrence.
The second stream is the containment measures, such as school closures and confinement. While these interventions reduce the speed of the infection rates, they have severe impacts on children in terms of loss of education, lost incomes and psychological trauma.
The third stream – and the main focus of this article - is the larger economic crisis generated by the containment measures, a crisis that will push millions of children and their families back into poverty; a crisis that will affect countries far into the future, even after the end of the lockdowns. This will have the worst impact on children when we look at the number of affected children, its duration and its severity.
Without the right vision, the right planning, and the right investments, the future could be bleak for millions of children. But there is hope and a resolve from UNICEF to rise from this pandemic building a stronger future for all children, and their countries.
The picture today
In East Asia and Pacific, many governments have implemented strong policies to contain the spread of the disease and COVID-19-related deaths. Infections have remained low in comparison to many developed countries, but the impact of those interventions are being felt across the region in a profound way.
Children today are vulnerable. Many are out of school, more vulnerable to abuse both on- and offline, lacking access to a healthy diet to help them grow. Many families have been living with one and half months’ savings under their mattress. In a protracted socioeconomic crisis like this one, this means that without work they are a few days away from struggling to bring food to the table and cover the basic needs of their children. It means they will start selling belongings and could even resort to more desperate measures without government support.
After the pandemic, a new danger to address
As the world’s attempt was to flatten the curve of the virus, it is now equally important to flatten the curve of the socio-economic impact on children and their families, a curve with a higher deadly potential for children and their families.
Shutdowns cause a daisy chain of lost incomes. If a factory worker loses their job, they will not buy food from a street vendor, who will then be unable to afford to buy their ingredients from the market, and the market seller will have little or no money to buy produce from the farmer. They will all struggle to provide for their children. The result is an expected dramatic, fast and prolonged increase in child poverty in the region.
For children who were already poor and vulnerable, the situation is worsening. Those who had managed to emerge from poverty are falling back. There will be children who never experienced poverty before, now falling into poverty. Most of these families are not covered by any existing social welfare support, and in many cases do not have any kind of job and salary protection.
This is likely to be the biggest and most dangerous COVID-19-related impact for children. While infection rates of children in the region were in the thousands, it is estimated that the number of children falling into poverty will be in the millions.
To flatten this curve of the socio-economic impact on children and their families, there is a blueprint for action that can help children survive today, and also allow them to thrive and shape a better future for themselves and their countries.
To curb the immediate impact of the pandemic, governments should urgently scale up unconditional cash transfer programmes to reach all children during the lockdown and immediate aftermath.
This would help parents like Suthat Namgasa in Thailand to be able to provide for their children tomorrow. Governments must be bold and ensure they reach and protect every child with universal cash transfer programmes. Simply put, no child should be left unprotected at this time. And this is possible.
With a few exceptions, most countries in the region have functioning social protection schemes that can be quickly expanded. Many will have to make it easier and faster for people to access support, but we have already seen successful examples in the region of increasing in the number of beneficiaries (horizontal expansion), in the amount transferred to beneficiaries (vertical expansion), or both vertical and horizontal expansion.
As countries are getting ready to restart their economies, there is an unprecedented political support and strong fiscal space for social expenditures that needs to be directed to child friendly solutions. Governments in this region have announced a broad range of stimulus measures, including packages to support the most vulnerable through social protection measures. But if we have learned something from past crises it is that expansion of social protection interventions will not last forever.
In a region which has historically spent well below the global average on social protection measures (7.4 per of GDP cent versus the 11.2 per cent global average), now is the moment to identify and propose policy approaches that can last beyond the immediate crisis and make countries better prepared for future shocks.
Strengthening public finance for social protection will be necessary and will require prioritised allocation of resources to respond to children’s health and basic needs.
All evidence suggests that this crisis is going to drag on, with significant risks to both mounting rates of poverty and inequality between and within countries.
Without a daring vision we not only risk losing the hard-won developmental gains in recent years in the region, we risk losing a generation of future thinkers, leaders, workers, and consumers.
Without the right investments from governments, the shadow of COVID-19 may hang over children and young people for a generation or more.
This is the time to be bold, with new, creative ideas that will help children flourish, and in turn support the economies of their countries. The global crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the fundamental role that stronger, universal, integrated and accessible social services —social welfare, education, health, early childhood development— play in protecting children and their caregivers from the negative effects of all sorts of crises. Cash transfers alone are not enough, and me need solid accessible and affordable social services.
UNICEF teams across the region are working closely with governments to not only respond to the needs of every child today, but to reimagine financing for children’s development in bold, new ways.
The promise of this dynamic and diverse region will not be realized without urgently investing in children and young people and preparing them for a new tomorrow.
The time is now to reimagine a stronger future for children.