Urgent action needed to safeguard futures of 600 million South Asian children threatened by COVID-19: UNICEF

Cash transfers and other measures can prevent families slipping into poverty

23 June 2020
Naina Patel with her daughter at Mamta Diwas at Chanota Fadia, AW Baria, Gujarat as routine immunisations and checkups resume post-COVID-19 lockdown
Naina Patel with her daughter at Mamta Diwas at Chanota Fadia, AW Baria, Gujarat as routine immunisations and checkups resume post-COVID-19 lockdown

GENEVA/KATHMANDU/NEW YORK, 23 JUNE 2020 – The COVID-19 pandemic is unravelling decades of health, education and other advances for children across South Asia, and governments must take urgent action to prevent millions of families from slipping back into poverty, UNICEF said in a new report released today.

With the pandemic expanding rapidly across a region that contains a quarter of the world’s population, Lives Upended describes the disastrous immediate and longer-term consequences that the virus and the measures to curb it have had on 600 million children and the services they depend on.

“The side-effects of the pandemic across South Asia, including the lockdown and other measures, have been damaging for children in numerous ways,” said Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia. “But the longer-term impact of the economic crisis on children will be on a different scale entirely. Without urgent action now, COVID-19 could destroy the hopes and futures of an entire generation.”

According to the report, immunization, nutrition and other vital health services have been severely disrupted, potentially threatening the lives of up to 459,000 children and mothers over the next six months. Food insecurity is growing: A UNICEF survey in Sri Lanka showed that 30 per cent of families have reduced their food consumption. In Bangladesh, some of the poorest families are unable to afford three meals a day.

With schools closed, more than 430 million children have had to rely on remote learning which have only partially filled the gap; many households – especially in rural areas – have no electricity, let alone internet access. There are concerns that some disadvantaged students may join the nearly 32 million children who were already out of school before COVID-19 struck.

Phone helplines are reporting a surge in calls from children suffering violence and abuse during confinement at home. Some children are struggling with depression, even resulting in attempts at suicide.

The report also notes that life-saving vaccination campaigns against measles, polio and other diseases must resume, as should work to help the estimated 7.7 million children who suffer from severe wasting -- more than half the global total. Schools should reopen as soon as possible provided adequate handwashing and other physical distancing precautions are in place.

In recent years, rising levels of prosperity produced significant health, education and other advances for children in South Asia. Improvements in infant and maternal mortality were matched by declines in the number of out-of-school children and in child marriages.

But the economic turmoil triggered by COVID-19 is hitting families across the region hard. Large-scale job losses and wage cuts have coincided with the loss of remittances from overseas workers and from tourism. UNICEF projections show that over the coming six months as many as 120 million more children could be pushed into poverty and food insecurity, joining some 240 million children already classified as poor.

In order to mitigate the impact on poorer families, the report says that Governments should immediately direct more resources towards social protection schemes, including emergency universal child benefits and school feeding programmes.

“Putting such measures in place now will help the countries of South Asia transition faster from the humanitarian crisis caused by COVID-19 to a resilient and sustainable development model, with long term benefits for child wellbeing, the economy, and social cohesion,” said Gough.

The report highlights the importance of tackling critical child-related issues exposed by COVID-19 including:

  • Providing community health workers and other social services staff with personal protective equipment (PPE) to enable them to do their work safely.
  • Scaling up of low-tech home learning solutions (for example, using a combination of paper and mobile phone-based materials) especially for vulnerable groups such as girls, children living in remote areas and urban slums, and children with disabilities.
  • Addressing the widescale need for water supply, toilets and hygiene services in schools and health care facilities.
  • Working with religious leaders and other partners to address the myths and hate-speech that the pandemic has given rise to.

By early June, within its ongoing COVID-19 response across the region, UNICEF and its governmental and other partners had:

  • Reached 356,820 people including children with community-based mental health and psychosocial support.
  • Engaged an estimated 100 million people on issues related to COVID-19 through risk communication and community engagement.
  • Reached 10.6 million people with critical WASH services and supplies as part of infection prevention control.
  • Trained 1.4 million health care providers to detect, refer and manage COVID-19 cases in children, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women.
  • Reached 7.3 million women and children with essential health care services including immunization, prenatal and postnatal care, HIV care and gender-based violence services in UNICEF supported facilities.


Geneva Palais Briefing on Lives Upended

GENEVA/KATHMANDU, 23 June 2020 - This is a summary of what was said by Report author Simon Ingram and UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia Jean Gough – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Simon Ingram:

"With COVID-19 infections surging across much of South Asia, there could not be a more timely moment to highlight the impact that this terrible virus is having on some 600 million children in the region.

"The report UNICEF is releasing today details a perfect storm of negative consequences for children across a region that contains one-quarter of the world’s population. 

"Vaccination campaigns and other vital health services have been suspended, putting thousands of children’s lives at risk each day. 

"Measles outbreaks have occurred in several countries, and other diseases are likely to follow. Polio eradication efforts have suffered a setback.

"More than 430 million children are locked out of their classrooms. Some children can continue their studies remotely, but many in poorer communities cannot.

"Confined at home, a growing number of children have been subjected to abuse and violence.

"But this is only the beginning. Families are being hit hard by the economic fall-out from COVID-19, losing their jobs and seeing remittances from family members working overseas dry up. Half a billion people in South Asia are already categorised as food insecure, and surveys show that as incomes shrink, more and more families are being forced to reduce their food consumption.

"UNICEF projections show that in the worst-case scenario over the coming months, the number of children in South Asia living in multi-dimensional poverty could grow by half, to reach 360 million.

"Multi-dimensional poverty means children are deprived in two out of three dimensions that includes health/nutrition, education and shelter)

"UNICEF calls on Governments to act now to protect these most vulnerable children. Two of the most effective ways of doing this are through emergency universal child benefits and school feeding programmes. Such measures would help South Asian countries transition faster from the humanitarian crisis caused by COVID-19, and move towards a more sustainable future, one which will have long-term benefits for children’s wellbeing, the economy, and social cohesion.

"Among other proposals highlighted in this report, UNICEF calls for:

  1. The scale-up of low-tech home learning solutions, especially for girls, children living in remote areas and urban slums, and children with disabilities.
  2. Installing adequate water supply, toilets and hygiene services in all schools and health care facilities.
  3. And we also want to highlight the importance of working with religious leaders and other partners to address the myths and hate-speech surrounding COVID-19.

"We must act now so that children -- and their futures -- are not devastated by the after-shocks of COVID 19 – by hunger, disease, violence, exploitation and lost education. 

"Let me now pass over to Jean Gough, Regional Director for UNICEF in South Asia, who is joining us from Kathmandu, Nepal."

Jean Gough: 

"COVID-19 is affecting children in South Asia in all sorts of different ways. No one could have imagined the impact on children. Let me share with you a few points about what we are seeing across the eight countries in the region:

"One of the most powerful means of hearing children’s voices is through the various helplines that UNICEF supports. We have seen a big increase in calls across the region. For example, in Sri Lanka, we have seen an increase of 40 per cent increase in calls from children reporting abuse. Children are telling us that they are threatened, they want to report on abuse and above all, they are anxious about their future. They want help and support. So one of the things they need urgently is mental health support. In a region where mental health is taboo, all of us need to do all we can to scale up programmes to help each and every child in need.

"In Bangladesh, in Cox’s Bazar, where around 500,000 Rohingya children are living. Despite all the work being done by UNICEF and partners to maintain services in camps and to reach them with information about how to protect themselves against COVID-19, they are still fearful. A survey among Rohingya children showed that 64 per cent feared getting infected and 48% were distressed because their child protection and learning centres are closed. And 39 per cent fear they would die of COVID.

"This is a very strong reason for the reopening of schools across the region whenever it is feasible because schools are a place where they can be helped to manage their stress and fear for the future.

"We are seeing a reduction on-demand and uptake of health services. This is a big problem across the region. For example, in Bangladesh, the average monthly consultations for children below the age of five in Government Health Facilities before the pandemic was around 350,000. This has dropped in the month of May to 80,000. In Pakistan, immunization in major cities dropped from above 80% to 40%. Pakistan and Afghanistan are also key to the long-running effort to eradicate polio. But immunization campaigns for polio and other diseases have been put on hold.

"This is a major setback to the global partnership for polio eradication because we had hoped to break transmissions very soon.

"Let me end by saying that the explosion of the virus is happening in high-density populated cities in India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where people living in slums are at very high risk of contracting the virus. And children in these areas face multiple deprivations: from lack of water for handwashing, lack of toilets, lack of space for physical distancing. They even face a higher risk of going hungry. The 600 million children in South Asia need your help and they need help now."


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