The Pandemic’s Cruelty Visits the World’s Children

The Covid-19 pandemic’s effects on poor countries is hitting children hard, forcing some of them to work while navigating unsavory home lives. In wars, children’s status is worse than ever. Here, in Madagascar, the health system is strained and schools are closed. HENITSOA RAFALIA/WORLD BANK

There are about two billion young children in the world today, ranging from infancy to 14 years old, and most of them live in developing nations in the global south. That is also where the Covid-19 pandemic is spreading the fastest.

Three of the top 10 countries in numbers of rapidly rising cases, as of June 15, were located in developing counties: Brazil, India and Peru, with dozens of others moving up the count in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

The World Bank, announcing the largest and quickest crisis response in its history, said in mid-May that it had begun emergency operations to support — with $160 billion in financial aid — 100 countries that contain 70 percent of the world’s 7.8 billion people.

Figures are historic, but the most dramatic extent of the pandemic is often revealed in the vulnerability of the most powerless: children. Sensitive to their surroundings even if they do not understand the events in the world around them, millions of children are now hungrier, exposed to more violence from an aggressive man in the home during lockdowns, deprived of education and, recently, found to be in more danger of entrapment into slave labor, potentially reversing gains just made. More girls are being driven into forced marriages, surveys predict.

While children may not, or not yet, be counted among the most serious Covid-19 cases, whatever basic health care they had access to before the pandemic struck may have been lost, including childhood vaccinations against old diseases. Advocates for children are asking global health officials to make sure that if and when a vaccine against Covid-19 is introduced that it will be available at little or no cost in developing countries.

(The Inter Press news service, which reports on developing nations, is collecting accounts worldwide of the perils children are facing.)

Children are also starving, falling ill and dying for lack of medical care in regional military conflicts. Attacks on schools and hospitals by both government and militant movements are killing them. Forced recruitment resurges on both sides.

On June 15, the United Nations released its latest annual report on children in armed conflict, which found that there were 25,000 recorded “grave violations” against children in 2019. It also noted a 400 percent increase in the denial of access to humanitarian organizations last year.

Virginia Gamba, the secretary-general’s special envoy for children in armed conflict, called it “by far the most worrisome trend in 2019.” There are also more impediments to the work of aid officials, the report said.

Yemen, Mali, the Central African Republic, Syria, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine were named in the report as the most worrying situations.

Saudis off the hook

In the case of Yemen — where a civil war expanded in 2015 into a subregional conflict between the Saudi Arabian-backed Yemeni government of mostly Sunni Arab Muslims and rebels from the Houthi, a tribally based Zaydi Shia movement that is reported to have close ties to Iran — there was immediate international criticism.

The anger focused on a decision by  Secretary-General António Guterres to remove the Saudi-United Arab Emirates military coalition from a UN blacklist of countries committing serious violations involving children. Guterres’s report said that the coalition had killed or injured 222 children in Yemen last year, including in 171 airstrikes, but that these incidents were decreasing. This reduction, Guterres said, justified his removing the Saudis from the list of major offenders and initiating a year of monitoring instead.

At a virtual news conference on June 15, while releasing the report, Gamba, the special representative, did not rigorously defend the move to delist the Saudi coalition. It was apparently not one of her own team’s conclusions. She said that this was entirely the secretary-general’s decision.

Jo Becker, the children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said that the secretary-general had added a new level of shame to his ‘list of shame’ by removing the Saudi-led coalition and ignoring the UN’s own evidence of continued grave violations.

“The secretary-general has brought shame on the UN by removing the Saudi-led coalition from his ‘list of shame’ even as it continues to kill and injure children in Yemen,” Becker said in a statement. “He has repeatedly and inexcusably left powerful countries off his list despite overwhelming UN evidence of grave violations against children.”

Adrianne Lapar, the director of Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, an international advocacy group, said that by removing the Saudi-led coalition from the list, “the Secretary-General sends the message that powerful actors can get away with killing children.”

Among other countries singled out in the secretary-general’s report was Afghanistan, the world’s deadliest conflict for children last year, for the fifth consecutive year, with 874 children killed in 2019. They were among the 3,410 young Afghans who suffered from “grave violations,” which included maiming, abduction, sexual abuse and attacks at schools and hospitals, the report released on June 15 said. The Taliban were cited in 1,238 deaths and injuries,  the largest number attributed to any single group.

Out of school, out of luck

Next in importance to establishing peace and security, economic development would rank very high for today’s children now and in the future, and education is key to that. Both are being set back by the pandemic, new reports from many sources are demonstrating.

Not long ago in developing countries, where burgeoning youth populations were considered to be “demographic dividends,” ensuring large, better-educated work forces for years to come, experts now see negative trends. Africa is a case in point.

The donor-supported Global Partnership for Education, based in Washington, D.C., strategizes with dozens of governments in Africa, Asia and the Latin American-Caribbean region in designing and improving educational opportunities, especially for girls. It recently published a paper titled “After Covid-19, education in Africa will not be the same.”

The paper, based on data from the World Bank, Unesco and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, noted that even before the pandemic, Africa had the world’s highest rate of exclusion from education.

“Today, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, over 250 million primary and secondary children are out of school in Africa,” the paper said. “The education sector is heavily affected, with the closure of learning institutions in many African countries.” Many students at all levels of education may never go back, some educators believe.

Learning online or through other communication technologies, such as television, radio and mobile phones, are being tried in some places.

“These strategies have been successful in some ways, but challenges remain as the poor marginalized children who neither have access to mobile phones or TV, or even radios for that matter, are excluded,” the paper said. “If these challenges are not addressed immediately, they can seriously affect the academic career of our students and in the long term bring about serious social and economic implications.”

The World Bank has concluded that the pandemic and the shutdown of rich economies on which many poor countries depend “could push as many as 60 million people into extreme poverty,” reversing earlier global gains.

Children as breadwinners

Turning to the social effects on children and the psychological as well as physical damage to them, their desperate families and shattered communities, the International Labor Organization (ILO) published a report on June 12 in conjunction with Unicef, titled “COVID-19 and Child Labour: A time of crisis, a time to act.”

The starting point of this report is the scale of disruption. “Some 55 per cent of people globally — about 4 billion — do not have any social protection,” it says. “They are extremely vulnerable to shocks now and over the long term. . . . Millions of children are at risk of being pushed into child labour as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. That would mean a rise in child labour for the first time since 2000.”

As the crisis worsens, more families are likely to break apart, and children become the victims of exploitive recruiters and smugglers, the report adds. “When families cannot find work and run out of options for sustenance even at home, children may be sent away, rendering them vulnerable to exploitation. Similar consequences may result if family members relocate or separate. Children left behind or alone are even less protected and more vulnerable to the worst forms of labour.”

The ILO lists among the worst forms of child labor that can emerge from a crisis like the current pandemic: slavery, involuntary recruitment as child soldiers and beggars, debt bondage, serfdom, sexual exploitation as prostitutes or performers in pornography, drug trafficking and forced work in mines or other hazardous environments.

Repeated requests by PassBlue to Unicef and its executive director, Henrietta Fore, for comment on the darkening world of children in 2020 went unanswered. Unicef is the prime agency charged with the care and protection of children.

At Human Rights Watch, Jo Becker, the children’s rights advocate, was forthright in her concern.

“The Covid19 pandemic will forever define the lives of today’s children,” she wrote in a memo to PassBlue. “Some will remember their disrupted education, while others suffer more dramatic hardships, including the loss of family members, family violence, or increasingly desperate poverty due to the global economic crisis.”

“For this generation of children,” she added, “the pandemic represents a cross-roads between long-term harm and disadvantage, versus government action to build better systems and protect the most vulnerable.”

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Barbara Crossette

Barbara Crossette

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a board member of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a contribtor to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and before that its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of "So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas," "The Great Hill Stations of Asia" and a Foreign Policy Association study, "India Changes Course," in the Foreign Policy Association's "Great Decisions 2015."

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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