The pandemic is a child-rights crisis

Italian news portal Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa interviewed Juan Santander, UNICEF Montenegro Representative, on children's lives in Montenegro during the pandemic

Giovanni Vale
UNICEF Montenegro / Duško Miljanić / 2021
08 December 2021

Source: Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa

Difficulties in accessing online education, increasing inequalities between rich and poor families, fewer outdoor activities and increased risk of domestic violence. Children's lives in the pandemic era become more difficult. In Montenegro the situation is serious. We spoke with Juan Santander, UNICEF director in Montenegro

As the pandemic continues, studies are published in many countries around the world to assess the impact of the past months on the population, and especially on children. What is the overall situation in Montenegro? How have the health crisis and the lockdown affected minors according to the UNICEF?

SANTANDER: The pandemic is not just a health crisis, but a child-rights crisis. It has increased child poverty and decreased the quality of education, health, child and social protection services, especially for the most vulnerable.

According to the UN Rapid Social Impact Assessments of the COVID-19 outbreak conducted in 2020 and 2021, families that are recipients of cash benefits, single-parent households, Roma families and families with a history of substance abuse have been extremely affected by the loss of income. Urgent needs of children that were identified ranged from the lack of food, hygiene items and Internet access for distance learning to limited access to health services, physical therapy, and socialising opportunities with peers, especially for children with disabilities.

Almost two thirds of parents were not able to afford babysitting while kindergartens were closed. 1 in 6 children in Montenegro lacks access to the Internet and online learning. In the northern region and the rural areas, the situation is worse – 1 in 4 children does not have a desktop or laptop with an Internet connection that can be used for distance learning. Almost two thirds of adolescents aged 10-19 feel that they have learned less via distance learning than they would have in regular classes.

A girl is through a door
UNICEF Montenegro / Duško Miljanić / 2018

You mentioned an increase in child poverty. A report that you published in April 2021, based on data from 2020, already confirmed this trend in the first year of the pandemic. What is the situation today? Are inequalities among families being exacerbated?

SANTANDER: Official figures on the Covid-19 impact on poverty are expected to be published soon. In Spring 2020, the World Bank estimated that up to 34,000 persons may have fallen into poverty due to Covid-19 in Montenegro. The UN Rapid Social Impact Assessments of the Covid-19 Outbreak in Montenegro conducted in 2020 and 2021 indicate that there has been a rise in poverty in Montenegro during the pandemic. Almost half of all Montenegrin citizens has seen a reduction in their income over the last six-month period compared to the pre-COVID-19 situation. One third reports that their income fell by 30% or more. Most vulnerable children have been affected the most such as those who were already living in poverty before the pandemic, Roma and children with disabilities and children growing up in single-parent households.

Education is another sector where the pandemic caused problems. You already mentioned difficulties to access the Internet and online learning. What were the main consequences for children and families in Montenegro dealing with online education? Is the situation different than in nearby countries?

SANTANDER: Disruption of schooling due to the pandemic has left children without education or with a much lower quality of education worldwide. In Western Balkan countries, school closures may lead to an increase of children who have not achieved basic literacy skills from 53% to 61%, according to World Bank estimates (World Bank, 2020).

16% of families with children aged 6–18 years in Montenegro do not have the digital equipment needed to follow online lessons. As a consequence, the pandemic has worsened the pre-existing digital divide.

According to UNICEF surveys with Montenegro’s parents conducted in 2020 and 2021, 60% and 83% of parents believed that their children had obtained less knowledge and skills than they would have through regular instruction. Students agree with them - they say to have learned less than they would have in regular classes according to the UN Rapid Social Impact Assessment of the COVID19 Outbreak in Montenegro conducted in 2021.

UNICEF Montenegro / Duško Miljanić / 2020

Always speaking of education, UNICEF has made a call together with UNESCO and the WHO to reopen schoolsbased on a global risk assessment that proves that reopening schools is safe. What are the main results of this study and what was the reaction of Montenegro’s authorities to your demand in this sense?

SANTANDER: The review of current evidence which was compiled by UNICEF and UNESCO and which included examples from 191 countries shows that in-person schooling does not appear to be the main driver of infection and that children in school do not appear to be exposed to higher risks of infection compared to when not in school when mitigation measures are in place. It also shows that school staff does not appear to be at a higher risk compared to the general population.

Today we know much more about the virus and its transmission than we knew two years ago. The latest WHO guidance from June 2021 stipulates that even in the highest risk situations all options should be considered for continuity of in-person learning. WHO recommends that closure of educational facilities should only be considered when there are no alternatives.

We presented all this data and recommendations to the educational authorities. As a result, as of September this year, all schools and preschools in Montenegro have re-opened for all students. Of course, #DistanceHandsMask prevention measures are in place. For the time being, classes are reduced to 30 minutes.

When it comes to children’s outdoor life, many activities were also reduced or cancelled because of the pandemic. What is the case in Montenegro too?

SANTANDER: The pandemic has significantly reduced opportunities for children to engage in out-of-school activities like sports and culture. Our research from 2018 shows that this was an issue in Montenegro even before the pandemic. Most children said they had not been to a cultural or sports event of any kind in the previous year: 68% had not been to the theatre, 60% to the cinema, 74% to a museum, 85% to an art exhibition, 61% to a concert and 51% to a sports event in the last year. The pandemic could have only increased these already worrying percentages.

Moreover, in 2018, children aged 12-17 said they spent on average of 8 hours per day in front of different screens. “Screen time” could have only increased during the pandemic. More time online makes children more exposed to risks from violence online especially if parental mediation of children’s media consumption is weak. For this reason, we called upon Montenegro’s parents to limit children’s screen time, to choose media contents wisely and to talk to them about this. During the lockdown period, there was a significant increase in the number of parents who said they were doing this, as they had more time to be with children at home. However, it is important that they continue doing so.

What should Montenegro’s government do in your opinion to better protect children and minors during the upcoming months, as the pandemic continues?

SANTANDER: Government should focus on improving the services that have “failed to deliver” or that have delivered with a lower quality during the lockdown.

In the area of health, catching up on missed immunisation in preschool children is an alarming issue. Deteriorating coverages can lead to a public health disaster if we have an overlapping of the pandemic and the epidemic of one of the diseases that can be prevented with vaccines during the first years of life, like the MMR vaccine. Together with the EU, UNICEF is providing support to the government to launch an MMR immunisation campaign this year and to strengthen related health services.

Based on data and systematic analysis, the government needs to make a sustainable long-term plan for reducing poverty and violence, improving the quality of education for every child in the country and better supporting mental health.