Generally, children have escaped the most severe symptoms of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that data from 149,760 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases in the US that occurred between February 12 to April 2 showed that only 1.7% of the cases were among children or young people below 18 years old. Among these cases, 73% had symptoms of fever, cough, or shortness of breath.
While children may be safe from the worst health implications of COVID-19, a UN report said that the social and economic impact “is potentially catastrophic for millions of children.” UN experts added that this pandemic is turning into “a broader child-rights crisis.” While all children of all ages across the world are affected, some are destined to bear the greatest costs. This includes those who are living in refugee and displacement camps, slums, conflict zones, institutions, and detention centers.
Recently, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the coronavirus pandemic is putting many of the world's children "in jeopardy,” urging families and leaders to protect them.
A Devastating Blow to Children in Poverty
Millions of children living in vulnerable communities across the world are already suffering from the far-reaching economic and social impacts of the measures needed to contain the pandemic. A joint study by Save the Children and UNICEF recently revealed that the economic consequences of this crisis could push as many as 86 million more children into poverty by the end of 2020.
According to UNICEF, this could bring the total number of children affected by poverty worldwide to 672 million, an increase of 15% over last year. While two-thirds of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, children will be the most affected with an increase of 44% in Latin America and 22% in the Caribbean.
“The coronavirus pandemic has triggered an unprecedented socio-economic crisis that is draining resources for families all over the world. The scale and depth of financial hardship among families threaten to roll back years of progress in reducing child poverty and to leave children deprived of essential services. Without concerted action, families barely getting by could be pushed into poverty, and the poorest families could face levels of deprivation that have not been seen for decades,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, said.
Gordon Brown, a UK labor chancellor, said that COVID-19 will be pushing child poverty in the UK to its highest level since statistics were first recorded 50 years ago. According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, had the British government raised child benefit and child tax credits, the country could prevent hundreds of thousands of children from being pushed into poverty. However, reports show that poverty may rise beyond five million children by 2022–two million more than in 2015.
The analysis also showed that hundreds of children remain multidimensionally poor. This means that they lack access to health care, education, proper nutrition, or adequate housing. Inger Ashing, Save the Children International CEO, said that children are highly vulnerable to even short periods of hunger and malnutrition, which could potentially affect their whole life.
“If we act now and decisively, we can prevent and contain the pandemic threat facing the poorest countries and some of the most vulnerable children. This report should be a wake-up call for the world. Poverty is not inevitable for children,” Ashing said.
Children Living in Poor Households
The study by Save the Children and UNICEF reported that one-third of children live in monetary poor households, which is almost 1 out of 3 children. Several estimates showed an increase of monetary poverty due to COVID-19 to 40-60 million people. Similar estimates by the UN suggest 84-132 million people. The researchers distinguished two effects to assess the impact of the pandemic on the number of children living in poor households.
The findings revealed that the decline in income of families is worse for the lowest end of the income distribution. This is strongly supported by recent evidence on the effects of past pandemics on inequality. Due to the immediate loss of income, many families are less able to afford basic necessities during this crisis such as food and water. They are also less likely to access health care or education and more at risk of child marriage, violence, exploitation, and abuse.
The researchers fear that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will further increase the risk of instability and of households falling into poverty for living in countries already affected by conflict and violence. Those who will be affected the most are children living in the Middle East and North Africa region, home to the highest number of children in need due to conflict. Countries in these regions have the highest unemployment rate among young people with nearly half of all children in the region live in multidimensional poverty.
Naomi Eisenstadt, the former director of New Labor’s Sure Start unit and Social Exclusion Task Force in the UK, said that recovery for low-income families will take much longer. However, this doesn’t mean that they are to blame for their lives. Eisenstadt explained that the majority of poor parents are poor because their income is not adequate. Also, poverty makes it harder for them to follow parenting recommendations during this pandemic.
“The coronavirus will see many parents, particularly those on low wages, lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Any new policy should be assessed on two factors: will it increase families’ income or decrease costs?” she said.
Guterres also emphasized that many families are forced to cut back on essential health and food expenditures, particularly affecting children, due to family stress levels rising as communities face lockdowns and reduced household income. Experts said that the measures being taken to mitigate the pandemic could lead to hundreds of thousands of additional child deaths in 2020.
"This would effectively reverse the last two to three years of progress in reducing infant mortality within a single year," the report said. The report also said that governments urgently need to scale up income support to help these families. Save the Children and UNICEF call for rapid and large-scale expansion of social protection systems and programs including cash transfers, school feeding, and child benefits. Also, governments are encouraged to invest in other forms of social protection, fiscal policies, employment, and labor market interventions to support families.