The COVID-19 pandemic has seen societies across the world adapting abruptly – both socially and economically – with the urgent demands to contain its spread and the harm that’s being caused.
We’ve seen schools temporarily closed, businesses literally shutting-up shop, and governments telling us to “stay-at-home” as part of a containment policy. And, we’ve all experienced the impact of these measures.
Whilst children appear to be relatively unscathed, in that the coronavirus makes itself felt in adults, they’re not, of course, immune to its impact.
There is the immediate impact – being at home when they should be at school. Stirling efforts are being made by teachers and parents to ensure that home learning happens, but for many children that is simply impossible.
Whilst measures are in place to ensure that disadvantaged children have access to those schools still open, it’s feared that many will slip through the net. The consequences of a disrupted education could be profound. Government and schools are presented with a formidable challenge to lessen the impact. France clearly appreciates this given that a relaxation of lockdown measures will see schools reopening in May.
Schools have long been recognised as a source of stability for children – and for some a refuge. Teachers may be the only adult that a child has to confide in and may be the only one who can detect the risk of abuse and implement action.
The concern is children who are already vulnerable are at increased risk of abuse because they are effectively cut off from school. The immediate thought is that the risk comes from others in the home, but the dynamic is more complex than that. Adults in the home may have been laid off from work and money is becoming increasingly tight causing considerable stress. Families already living in possibly cramped conditions no longer have that safety valve of school which creates stresses in its own way.
Stress as we sadly know can sometimes find a perverse outlet in physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. There are also the often hidden dangers of access to the internet. Children, instead of being in a classroom, are going to be at home and accessing the internet and with that exposing themselves to those who use the net to groom and coerce as a prelude to sexual abuse.
The UN is concerned that children are going to miss out on vital immunisation. Noting that measles immunization campaigns have been delayed in 24 countries and will be cancelled in 13 others, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) joined other health partners in a statement supporting the Measles & Rubella Initiative (M&RI) which is a global partnership, founded by both agencies along with the American Red Cross, the US Centers for Disease Control and Protection, and the UN Foundation. A failure to immunise runs the risk of developing a measles pandemic.
Despite having a safe, effective vaccine for over 50 years, in 2018, a measles surge claimed more than 140,000 lives – mostly children and babies. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has kept infants from routine immunization services. The irony would be a tragic one if there is a major measles outbreak resulting in avoidable deaths and disabilities.
The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action – a UNICEF -backed organisation has advised that government and agencies concerned with children’s welfare should have a multi-sectoral response that (a) ensures that children and caregivers’ needs are addressed holistically and (b) leads to better outcomes for children.
All of this means that as well as mitigating risks, when it comes to children, steps need to be taken to build on the strengths and positive coping mechanisms of communities, families, caregivers and children.
In practical terms that could mean providing targeted support to interim care centres and families, including child-headed households and foster families, to emotionally support children and engage in appropriate self-care.
The challenge though is not just in taking these steps but actually finding the time and physical resources when there are so many desperate and competing demands on the State.
Time will tell but it will be a reflection, for better or worse, on our society how it plans today for tomorrow.