Aside from coronavirus having a devastating effect on the lives of people, it is also changing the family dynamics by keeping the already vulnerable children under high-risk situations and has been the root cause of child abuse and neglect. Within no time, the lives of children and families around the world turned upside down. The education of approximately 1.6 billion pupils in 190 countries has so far been affected – which accounts for 90% of the student’s population globally.
As there are no schools, the child’s daily routine has been interrupted and there are also elevated rates of child abuse because the parents and carers are under new stress who may have to give up their work. Movement restriction amid the pandemic has thrown the children into confusion as there is no support system from relatives and friends. Because of the immediate measures taken by governments in order to reduce the spread of the pandemic, millions of children all over the world are under threat of safety and well-being which includes mistreatment, gender-based violence, social exclusion and separation from parents and carers. Reduced parental supervision can leave children more vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse.
COVID-19 stigma has kept a few children at high risk of violence and stress. ‘The disease is currently approaching children and families in several ways than it directly attacks,’ said Cornelius Williams, UNICEF Chief of Child Protection.
During infectious disease outbreaks, carers may not be able to extend care to their children because of illness, death, or due to psychological distress. The same scenario took place in the past public health emergencies. Due to the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa from 2014–16, schools were shut resulting in child labour, neglect, sexual abuse, and teenage pregnancies. The cases of teenage pregnancies were increased to 14,000 in Sierra Leone, because of an outbreak – that figure was double the number before the outbreak.
Child protection issues
- Separation of children from carers is caused due to death or disability of carers when the children are sent away by the parents to other family members to non-affected areas. A two-year-old boy tested positive with COVID-19 in Delhi’s Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital; he spent a tough night in isolation ward because of separation from parents.
- Psychological distress is due to fear of infection with the disease or stigmatisation of individual infected with or suspected to be infected or also due to death or illness of closed ones. Two to three-year-olds, separated from their parents, showed signs of anxiety through extreme clinginess after their parents return from quarantine. ‘A mother told me that her child is not even letting her go to the toilet. In slightly older children, three- to six-year-olds, a common thought is: ‘Did I do something wrong that my parents went away?‘ said a doctor.
- Sexual violence is caused due to death or illness of carer which reduces family protection. Many countries are reporting a spike in domestic and sexual violence cases and also violence against children. A third of all the crimes in Kenya were related to sexual violence ever since the COVID pandemic spread.
- Child labour is due to loss of household income because of death or illness of carers. Millions of children are vulnerable to child labour due to the pandemic. The world commitment to ending child labour by 2025 is likely to get difficult because of the crisis. There is a sudden rise in child labour ever since after 2000. Unemployment of parents because of the financial crisis in Brazil has led the children to step out for providing short-term support.
- Social exclusion is because of social stigmatisation of individuals infected, or of individuals suspected to be infected. The social crisis caused by the COVID-19 has also chances of experiences of increasing inequality, exclusion, discrimination, and global unemployment in the medium and long term if not properly addressed through policy.
- Neglect is due to death or illness of carer or abandonment due to fear of transmission. ‘The emotional needs of children are totally being neglected at the moment,’ says Dr Elizabeth Rapa from the department of psychiatry at the University of Oxford. Even though children are provided with sufficient materials on the physical effects on how to combat with the disease, they are getting least support while coping with the stress which is the need of the hour.
- Physical violence is the result of the loss of household income due to death or illness of caregiver which increases family tensions which in turn leads to domestic violence. Young girls are more vulnerable to physical violence as parents are ready to marry minor girls during this pandemic. Activists feel that girls who try to avoid marriages are facing physical violence in their houses but are not able to reach the helplines because of lockdown.
Child protection during pandemic at the micro level: Parents and carers
- It is important for the parents to focus on the basic actions the children need to follow particularly in these pandemic situations, like frequently washing hands with soap, not touching the face, and social distancing which all help in protecting both themselves and their community.
- Talk and listen: Ask the children to talk about what’s going on. Let them express whatever they are feeling due to this pandemic so they can be relieved from stress.
- Have corona-free time. Make sure that the corona conversations don’t dominate every time since it can generate fear in children. Ask them to play games, watch films, listen to music, or engage in other activities that they enjoy.
- Make sure that kids eat first – especially when household’s finances have been impacted.
Child protection during pandemic at the macro level: Government and organisations
- Health, education, and child services staff should be trained on pandemic-related child protection risks including prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse and how to safely report the issues.
- Develop referral pathways and offer psychosocial support to children whose carers or family members are admitted to treatment centres.
- The delivery of essential health services should be safe and secured through ring-fence midwives and nurses who provide perinatal care.
- Financial and material support should be provided to the families who are facing financial crisis amid the pandemic which can be indirectly helpful to the children.
- As the schools were closed, governments should develop, broadcast, and publish digital content (classes on television, online resource, etc), print and safely distribute textbooks and workbooks for home study.
The pandemic has created chaos to the child’s future – right from the academic success to social skills and also affecting their mental health. Protecting the child is the need of the hour as the fall out may not leave them throughout their lives. The best interest of the child is the main objective which can be achieved by protecting the child and giving the most priority to them during these unprecedented times.
Navya Gedela is an MSc student at the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Punjab Agricultural University.