Teachers and social workers must be prioritized for vaccination against COVID-19

UNICEF welcomes the Royal Thai Government’s decision to vaccinate 600,000 teachers nationwide before schools reopen

Kyungsun Kim, UNICEF Representative for Thailand
Students are sitting by keeping distant between each other during the COVID-19 pandemic.
UNICEF Thailand/2020/Roengrit Kongmuang
20 May 2021

The third wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Thailand is so far the most severe in the country, with infections among children also on the rise. 

Although children may not be the face of this pandemic, they risk being among its biggest victims as their lives are being turned upside down under restriction measures. While necessary, these measures inevitably disrupt children’s access to services such as health, education, welfare and protection, and the impact may be lifelong, especially for the most vulnerable.

Children need their lives back, and the COVID-19 vaccine is a key step toward that recovery. In addition to health workers and high-risk groups prioritized in Thailand's vaccine roll-out, vaccinating another key group of frontline workers including teachers and social workers, who are ensuring the safety and well-being of children and their families, must also be prioritized. 

UNICEF welcomes the Royal Thai Government’s decision to vaccinate 600,000 teachers nationwide before schools reopen. It is a critical and timely step, allowing them to teach in person, keep schools open and ensure learning continuity.

We are also calling for social workers to be among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once it is rolled out nationwide. Economic stress on families may heighten the need for welfare support, while social isolation may increase tensions at home, cause anxiety and put children at higher risk of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. Vaccinating social workers will allow them to carry on with their duties in delivering crucial services for children such as welfare and protection services.

Even before the pandemic, less than 6 in 10 children attending Grade 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 a UNICEF-supported survey by the National Statistical Office on the situation of children and women in Thailand in 2019, or the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS 2019). The situation is worse among children in poor families.

With every day that goes by with children out of classrooms, they fall further behind. As we enter the second year of disrupted learning, no effort should be spared to help children return to the classroom and vaccinating teachers will help put children’s education and development back on track.

Recognizing the urgency to protect teachers, many countries have given them first or second priority in their national plans. According to a UNESCO and Teacher Task Force survey of 150 countries in March 2021, 17 countries including China and Vietnam have given teachers first priority for vaccination. Another 19 countries including Germany, Indonesia, Spain and the United States have given teachers second priority after health workers and high-risk groups. 

Furthermore, COVID-19 lockdown measures around the world have not only exposed children to greater risks of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation but have also weakened child protection services. UNICEF’s Socioeconomic Impact Survey of COVID-19 Response in 2020 found that 76 per cent of the 136 countries surveyed including Thailand reported a disruption in violence prevention and response services due to COVID-19. About two-thirds of countries with disruptions reported that at least one type of their services had been severely affected. 

Long before the pandemic, too many children in Thailand had been exposed to violence and abuse. According to the latest MICS, 58 per cent of children under the age of 14 in Thailand have been subjected to physical and psychological punishment by family members. 

Now, families in Thailand are seeing disruptions to home visits by child welfare and social workers due to COVID-19. Many social workers are reportedly being quarantined following home visits to families at risk of COVID-19 infection. Case management and referral services are delayed and sometimes not possible. Government-run child welfare institutions and temporary shelters are prohibiting visits from relatives and increasing requirements for accepting new cases. 

UNICEF has been supporting the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security to develop and distribute child protection guidelines for public and private residential centres as well as in communities to support the operation of social workers throughout the pandemic. Vaccinating social workers should be made a national priority to ensure continuation of child protection services in person, as nothing can replace human contact for building rapport with children and families from vulnerable groups. With only four social workers for every 100,000 people in Thailand, the urgency is more acute than ever amid the second year of weakened child protection services. 

To help ensure the safety and well-being of children and their families in Thailand, UNICEF welcomes the Government’s efforts to prioritize teachers for COVID-19 vaccination following health workers and we call for social workers to also be prioritized in the vaccine roll-out.  We must do everything we can to safeguard the future of the next generation, which starts with safeguarding those responsible for their development and wellbeing.