Placing Children at the Heart of Viet Nam’s COVID-19 Response
Interview with Ms. Rana Flowers, Representative, UNICEF Viet Nam
1. What do you think about Viet Nam’s effort in response to Covid-19 pandemic?
I am very impressed. As one of the first countries to be affected, the Vietnamese Government counselled its citizens; coordinated a strategic response plan and contained the virus. Viet Nam, rightly, won international praise for its swift and decisive response but the devastating economic impact of the nationwide shutdown will reverberate for some time.
As the Representative of UNICEF Viet Nam, I congratulate the Government on its strategic leadership, ever more important as it embraces the challenges ahead. At home and, as Chair of ASEAN, it is a crucial moment to place children at the heart of efforts to both prevent the spread of COVID-19 and, critically, to mitigate the social impacts of this crisis in the long-term.
2. What are the social impacts of this crisis on children?
As well as being an economic crisis, COVID-19 is a development crisis and its impact – beyond the immediate health risks – has a child’s face. Let me identify some of the development challenges.
Since early February, necessary physical distancing requirement resulted in the learning of more than 21 million school children in Viet Nam being affected by school closures and we recognize that parents/caregivers have struggled with finding alternative childcare arrangements. While online learning is being rolled out, the crisis has exposed a significant digital divide – between those with access to both a device and Internet and those without. For those who don’t have access to online learning tools, the digital divide is widening. And for those children who are able to turn to digital learning and entertainment platforms, they are, increasingly at risk from online predators. Many disadvantaged children have been drawn into laboring. Important that communities now moblise to ensure every child returns to school.
As of mid-April, nearly five million Vietnamese workers had lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The crisis may double the poverty rates among households in Viet Nam. With the loss of income, parents struggle to provide nutritious meals to fuel the healthy development of their children’s brains and bodies – jeopardizing their future ability to learn, earn and be productive citizens. We have also sadly seen an increase in violence against women and children in their homes.
More than six million children are living with disabilities in Viet Nam. They, and other vulnerable children, including poor childen, migrant children, those in ethnic minorities – making up a considerable number of children, are amongst the most susceptible to violence, child labour, exploitation, trafficking and abuse in this pandemic.
In structuring any response, we need to understand that the crisis affects children disproportionately. Prolonged periods of poor nutrition or missed school can have life-long consequences – and that’s devastating not only for the children themselves but because this is the generation of children who will drive Viet Nam’s economy in years to come. These girls and boys are the future innovators and entrepreneurs, the doctors and scientists, the teachers and decision-makers.
Investing in children isn’t just the smart thing to do; it’s the right thing to do.
3. What does UNICEF recommend to address those challenges?
As the Committee on the Rights of the Child has urged, and as the United Nations Secretary General has advised, the best interests of the child must guide decision-makers at all levels of policy-making. Respecting and promoting the rights and development needs of children lies at the heart of an inclusive and sustainable response to COVID-19. In other words, the best interests of Viet Nam’s children today are the best interests of this nation’s future.
To that end, and at this critical juncture, UNICEF offers an urgent three-point action plan:
- Universal cash assistance for children is essential. While services are disrupted and livelihoods threatened, there’s an urgent need to support families to have funds to provide nutritious food, healthcare, child-care and more. The Government’s generous cash assistance we hope will target children to shield them from poverty, vulnerability and nutrition insecurity so that they develop to their fullest potential.
- Safeguarding and redoubling social spending is crucial to sustain hard-earned development gains. Robust fiscal policies are urgently needed to continue providing affordable, accessible and quality social services including: to the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) for continued learning for all children including ethnic minority children, those with disabilities, and girls; to the Ministry of Health (MoH) for primary health care and outreach services – reaching out into communities to ensure routine immunization, maternal and newborn care, and measuring and addressing nutrition; to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) for enhanced water and sanitation in communities, health facilities and schools, especially in drought affected areas; and to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) to define core child protection services as essential so they function in quarantine centers and hospitals, while improving hotline referral and responses for women and children.
- A whole-society approach is crucial to support the most vulnerable children and families. Services can only be delivered if adequate investments are made to ensure trained professionals – teachers, health workers and social workers – function at the community level where they reach all children and families affected by COVID-19.
By LAN VŨ