COVID-19 ‘biggest global crisis for children in our 75-year history’ – UNICEF

On its 75th anniversary, UNICEF warns that COVID-19 is rolling back virtually every measure of progress for children, including a staggering 100 million more children plunged into poverty

09 December 2021
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Danny Kaye entertains a group of laughing children in Thailand in 1954
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Danny Kaye entertains a group of laughing children in Thailand in 1954

NEW YORK/BANGKOK, 9 December 2021 – COVID-19 has affected children at an unprecedented scale, making it the worst crisis for children UNICEF has seen in its 75-year history, the United Nations Children’s agency said in a report released today. 

The report Preventing a lost decade: Urgent action to reverse the devastating impact of COVID-19 on children and young people highlights the various ways in which COVID-19 is challenging decades of progress on key childhood challenges such as poverty, health, access to education, nutrition, child protection and mental well-being. It warns that, almost two years into the pandemic, the widespread impact of COVID-19 continues to deepen, increasing poverty, entrenching inequality and threatening the rights of children at previously unseen levels.

A girl accepts a bread roll, seated on the ground with other girls at Campo Dei Cavalieri Di Colombo at Via Aurelia in Rome, the capital.
A girl accepts a bread roll, seated on the ground with other girls at Campo Dei Cavalieri Di Colombo at Via Aurelia in Rome, the capital.

“Throughout our history, UNICEF has helped to shape healthier and safer environments for children across the globe, with great results for millions,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “These gains are now at risk. The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest threat to progress for children in our 75-year history. While the number of children who are hungry, out of school, abused, living in poverty or forced into marriage is going up, the number of children with access to health care, vaccines, sufficient food and essential services is going down. In a year in which we should be looking forward, we are going backward.”

The report says a staggering 100 million additional children are estimated to now be living in multidimensional poverty because of the pandemic, a 10 per cent increase since 2019. This corresponds to approximately 1.8 children every second since mid-March 2020. Further, the report warns of a long path toward regaining lost ground – even in a best-case scenario, it will take seven to eight years to recover and return to pre-COVID child poverty levels.

Citing further evidence of backsliding, the global report says that around 60 million more children are now in monetary poor households compared to prior to the pandemic. In addition, in 2020, over 23 million children missed out on essential vaccines – an increase of nearly 4 million from 2019, and the highest number in 11 years.

Even before the pandemic, around 1 billion children worldwide suffered at least one severe deprivation, without access to education, health, housing, nutrition, sanitation or water. This number is now rising as the unequal recovery furthers growing divides between wealthy and poor children, with the most marginalized and vulnerable hurt the most. The report notes:

  • At its peak, more than 1.6 billion students were out of school due to nationwide shutdowns. Schools were closed worldwide for almost 80 per cent of the in-person instruction in the first year of the crisis.
  • Mental health conditions affect more than 13 per cent of adolescents aged 10–19 worldwide. By October 2020, the pandemic had disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93 per cent of countries worldwide.
  • Up to 10 million additional child marriages can occur before the end of the decade as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The number of children in child labour has risen to 160 million worldwide – an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years. An additional 9 million children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the increase in poverty triggered by the pandemic. 
  • At the peak of the pandemic, 1.8 billion children lived in the 104 countries where violence prevention and response services were seriously disrupted.
  • 50 million children suffer from wasting, the most life-threatening form of malnutrition, and this figure could increase by 9 million by 2022 due to the pandemic’s impact on children’s diets, nutrition services and feeding practices.
Children affected by COVID-19 in Thailand received UNICEF supplies and learning materials.
UNICEF Thailand
Children affected by COVID-19 in Thailand received UNICEF supplies and learning materials.

In Thailand, the pandemic has exacerbated the existing vulnerabilities, with children becoming particularly vulnerable to the devastating socio-economic impacts of this pandemic.  An online survey, conducted by the National Statistical Office (NSO) with support from UNICEF and the Thailand Development and Research Institute last year, found that families with young children were more likely to experience higher cost of living and loss of income.

In addition, children were over-represented among the poor population and were almost twice as likely to be in poverty compared to the working age population. According to the NESDC’s Poverty and Inequality Report, as of 2020, the poverty rate was 8.6, 11.1 and 9.2 per cent for the age groups of 0-5, 6-14 and 15-17 respectively, compared to the national average of 6.8 per cent.

Moreover, 7 in 10 children and young people surveyed by UNICEF in March-April 2020 reported poorer mental health due to the impact of COVID-19. Most were worried about their family income, studies and future education and employment.

Prolonged school closures may have devastating consequences for children’s learning and well-being, especially for the most vulnerable who lack access to online learning. According to a survey by the NSO last year, nearly half of families in Thailand were not ready for online learning; 51 per cent did not have access to devices for online learning; 26 per cent did not have internet access for online learning; and 40 per cent of parents and caregivers said they did not have time to oversee their children’s online learning.

Even before the pandemic, less than 6 in 10 children attending Grades 2 and 3 had basic reading skills, and just about half had basic number skills. About 18 per cent of upper secondary-school aged children were out of school, according to the 2019 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey by the NSO and UNICEF.

“The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 can bring long-term harm for children’s development and reverse decades of Thailand’s progress in human capital gains,” said Kyungsun Kim, UNICEF Representative for Thailand. “We must protect these hard-won gains, and that means placing children at the heart of our COVID-19 recovery. We must strengthen our health and education systems and social protection schemes to build back a secure future for every child and prevent future crises. We also need to support adolescents and young people in acquiring 21st century skills and make sure that they are consulted and included in designing solutions aimed at addressing the challenges facing them.”

“UNICEF has been working for children in Thailand for more than seven decades, and we will never stop,” Kim added. “The global pandemic has shown that for millions of vulnerable children, ‘normal’ was never good enough. Our work for and with children continues because a better tomorrow can start today, where every child can survive and thrive, and be heard, valued and nurtured to become a leader of tomorrow.”

Media contacts

Iman Morooka
Chief of Communication
UNICEF Thailand
Tel: 061-414-6488
Nattha Keenapan
Communication Officer
UNICEF Thailand Country Office


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