Children, covid-19 and the way forward

In many parts of the world, children are staying at home to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. While this form of social distancing is necessary, it can be disruptive to daily life, especially for children as it is a major change in their everyday routine. There are kids who can adapt easily, and others who may encounter difficulties in adjusting to the ongoing changes in their lives.

In times like this, the overwhelming impact of critical containment measures such as the closure of schools, lockdowns, social distancing and movement restriction cannot be underestimated. These measures although needed, have confined children to their homes. Indeed, at no time have parents been more engaged in home schooling of their children as now. Online education, virtual classes and other forms of e-learning services for children are now more popular.

With the sudden shift from classroom education to online teaching and full time home schooling, comes the issue of violence against children. Recent reports have shown a spike in violence against children as more kids are prone to risks of being abused at home, especially by adults and caregivers. According to the United Nations special representative on violence against children, Najat Maalla M’jid, children are now at greater risk of experiencing violence, exploitation and challenges to their mental health.

In most cases, violence against children could go unchecked due to lack of accessibility to other adults, teachers, guidance counsellors or day-care providers who can easily identify signs of distress and provide help. Children from dysfunctional homes may face increased risks of abuse due to incidents of parental substance abuse, domestic violence or mental disorder. Although there are countries like Germany and the United States where child protection services are still operating and closely monitoring children during lockdowns, but this may not be the case in some other countries.

Another problem which some children are currently facing is parental neglect. Due to the fact that most parents are working from home or unable to take leave based on the heavy demands of their jobs, children could be left at home with minimal or no supervision. Statistics have shown an unprecedented increase in screen time as more kids are watching television for longer hours and spending more time on virtual platforms. For other kids, their parents may not be able to get alternative care for them due to school closure, thus leaving them to cater for themselves.

A more daunting challenge is the lack of access to education for some children, especially those from poor communities. While some schools have adopted alternative measures of online learning through virtual classes and use of internet resources, not all children are privileged enough to enjoy this luxury. Most public schools, especially in Africa, may not even have online learning facilities and are not programmed to implement long distance learning models for children. In contrast, some privileged children who have access to the internet still miss the physical presence, peer interaction and stability that classroom education brings. For younger children, online learning can only go for so long due to the shortness of their attention span.

Access to the internet also comes with its disadvantages. With the likelihood of children now spending more time online, they may be exposed to cyberbullying, potential child molesters, risky online behaviour and sexual exploitation. Although there are fewer cases of children contracting the coronavirus, it would seem that some children are more affected by the disease due to the physical stress and economic burden on their families. Physical assault on children could be as a result of their parents or caregivers reacting to covid-19 related stress, isolation, financial worries, job loss, health issues and excessive confinement.

To this extent, the UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore described the pandemic as a “health crisis that is fast becoming a child rights crisis”. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) further estimates that about 1.37 billion children are currently out of school due to covid-19 induced school closure.

Apart from internet accessibility or the lack thereof, there are children who are prone to experiencing academic difficulties such as those who reside in the asylum, displacement and refugee camps, children with disabilities, those whose families have lost their sources of income or are financially struggling and in some cases, others in foster care.

More pressing is the fact that some children rely on free school meals. The World Food Programme provides half of the world’s school children (about 310 million) with a daily meal at school. For some of these kids, especially those from low income households and poorer communities, school feeding programmes have contributed greatly to their wellbeing. A fundamental question is: how are these children coping now?

In addressing the various problems which children are currently facing due to covid -19, a lot can be done to ensure that they are protected and adequately catered for. First, the government can help by providing shelters and safe accommodation, especially for vulnerable children. Measures should also be put in place to ensure easy access to child protection services and child rights protection organizations. Accessible hotlines should be readily available to report incidents of child abuse and violation.

Social awareness can be created through popular platforms to engage members of the public on the laws protecting children, as well as punitive measures for disregarding these laws. Social welfare packages could also be set up specifically for children. Moreover, the government can also make plans to set up information and communication technology facilities across communities and public schools as soon as the pandemic is over. Apart from online teaching, other means of teaching children through educational television programs and radio shows should be encouraged.

On their part, parents and caregivers should take conscious efforts to protect and educate children about the coronavirus. Concerns raised by kids regarding the virus should also be immediately addressed. There should be minimal internet access and control of online contents which children can have access to. Children should also be encouraged to maintain a high standard of personal hygiene and a healthy environment. This could be done by teaching them to maintain healthy practises of handwashing, general cleanliness and social distancing. Parents can also encourage better communication and bond better with their kids during this period.

Children also have their roles to play, but this is dependent on how enlightened and meaningfully informed they are. The United Nations International Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF) advises that parents should be willing to discuss coronavirus issues with their children, although with a measure of care not to increase their anxiety.

Ultimately, covid-19 is a major crisis, the impact of which will be lifelong especially on children. Hence, the society has a lot to do in ensuring that children are well protected and empowered during this crucial time. A greater duty also lies with adults, who can decide to be more compassionate and socially responsible towards children.