Mitigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and their families
The COVID-19 pandemic has put an unprecedented burden on Kosovo’s health system since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Kosovo in 2020. Limited pandemic readiness has made the COVID-19 response difficult. After a promising start, vaccine uptake has plateaued. At the same time, disruptions to antenatal care, routine immunization, and outreach services have impacted the health of children and vulnerable communities.
From the onset of the pandemic, UNICEF has worked closely with the Ministries of Health and Education, science, technology and innovation to support with the pandemic response, especially the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and to provide Kosovo’s children and most vulnerable communities with access to healthcare and continued education.
Increasing access and uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine
Kosovo implemented a well-organized COVID-19 vaccine campaign resulting in 43.5 per cent of the population above 12 being fully vaccinated – one of the highest vaccination rates in the Western Balkans – by 31st December 2021. A total of 739,620 donated vaccines were delivered through COVAX mechanism, enough to fully vaccinate 21 per cent of the total population. In addition, UNICEF distributed 1.3 million syringes and around 14,000 masks to healthcare facilities and supported the operationalization of 30 municipal COVID-19 vaccination centres by providing IT equipment for printing vaccination cards and other equipment and infrastructure, in 2021. This enabled the daily vaccination, at best, of around 20,000 people or around 1% of the population.
To address misinformation related to COVID-19 vaccines, the Communication Hub, a new initiative supported by UNICEF, has supported the Ministry of Health with data analysis and gathering insights from social listening platforms to produce traditional and social media communication products. Around 488,000 viewers have been reached with information on COVID-19, dispelling myths and addressing concerns, such as around getting vaccinated while pregnant and breastfeeding.
UNICEF has also worked with its NGO partners to engage vulnerable communities, support their access to information and the vaccine, and promote dialogue and behaviour change related to COVID-19.
Strengthening systems for vaccination, storage and delivery
UNICEF has also helped strengthen the Kosovo cold chain infrastructure by supporting procuring six freezer rooms for the new central vaccine storage as well as procuring 14 ultra-low temperature freezers and 270 refrigerators and freezers for health centres throughout Kosovo. At the same time, UNICEF has trained 200 health professionals with training to assist with logistics.
Supporting children’s access to health care
In line with the government’s plan to decentralize vaccinations to the Primary Health Care (PHC) level, UNICEF has been working to build the capacity of municipal staff to promote vaccinations and reach the most vulnerable and marginalized people. About 1,500 health professionals have been trained for effective vaccine administration, handling and storing of COVID-19 vaccines and interpersonal skills and reporting Adverse Effects Following Immunization (AEFI).
To ensure children had continued access to health care during lockdowns, UNICEF supported health workers in providing telehealth counselling to patients. This innovation increased the number and frequency of contact between families and nurses compared to pre-pandemic. In 2021, health workers were able to carry out 25,000 consultations with pregnant women and parents of young children. Through these visits and consultations, the home visiting programme reached over 14,000 children aged 0-3 years (six per cent from Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities) and about 2,500 pregnant women.
Disruptions to education and youth employment
Education has experienced interruptions during three subsequent school years. Following the first recorded cases of COVID-19 in Kosovo in early 2020, all schools were closed for three months affecting 345,540 pupils; later schools have been temporarily closed and classes sometimes split. Those who do not have devices or internet to access online content have at times been left without schooling.
Supporting children’s access to online education
Getting safely back into classrooms has been critical for children’s learning and psychosocial wellbeing in Kosovo. Our work with authorities to develop health guidelines and distribute masks and disinfectants to 95 per cent of schools in Kosovo has enabled 300,000 students to return to classrooms Where returning to school was not possible during pandemic peaks, UNICEF helped equip teachers and students to use online platforms, the Kosovo-wide e-learning platform shkollat.org which has a digital library and video lessons for all subjects from Grades 1-9 and 21st century skills-based programmes for Grades 10-12. UNICEF trained 2,000 teachers on how to use shkollat.org, connected 13 schools to the internet, and joined with partners to supply 305 laptops to teachers and 629 tablets to vulnerable children and adolescents. By the end of 2021, about 200,000 students accessed online learning on shkollat.org.