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UN: Children left vulnerable by impact of the pandemic

Children wait to be served at a soup

Children wait to be served at a soup kitchen Friday during a government-ordered lockdown to curb the spread of the new coronavirus at Fuerte Apache, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Credit: AP / Natacha Pisarenko

Though children appear to be less likely than their elders to get sick or die from coronavirus, they are still vulnerable to destructive effects of the disease, including increased poverty, lack of education, and high levels of violence, all of which could lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths, according to a new UN report.

“While children are not the face of this pandemic, its broader impacts on children risk being catastrophic and amongst the most lasting consequences for societies as a whole,” said the 17-page policy brief, The Impact of COVID-19 on Children. “What started as a public health emergency has snowballed into a formidable test for global development and for the prospects of today’s young generation.”

The result, combined with global recession, could be lethal for children, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said.

A March 27 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 5% of coronavirus cases were of people younger than 20 years old, and that the vast majority of those victims suffered from mild symptoms. However, Guterres said the world’s poorest countries will be hit hardest by the pandemic, with their children bearing the brunt of the devastation.

“I am especially concerned about the well-being of the world’s children,” he said. “Thankfully, children have so far been largely spared from the most severe symptoms of the disease. But their lives are being totally upended.”

The report identifies four areas where children are at greater risk because of the pandemic: education, food security, safety and health.

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“The worldwide closure of schools has no historical precedent,” it said, adding that as many as “188 countries have imposed countrywide closures, affecting more than 1.5 billion children and youth.”

Further, the report said, governments in as many as 27 countries took preemptive measures due to the outbreak and closed schools even before recording any cases of coronavirus.

The loss of jobs by the breadwinners in many families threatens to increase the number of children in extreme poverty, their numbers rising by tens of millions, the report said.

“An estimated 42 [million] to 66 million children could fall into extreme poverty as a result of the crisis this year,” it said, “adding to the estimated 386 million children already in extreme poverty in 2019.”

Those figures have concerning implications for whether the families can properly feed their children, it said, adding that "368.5 million children across 143 countries who normally rely on school meals for a reliable source of daily nutrition must now look to other sources."

Frustrations over the effects of the pandemic, Guterres said, have already brought on an alarming increase in domestic violence, with women and girls the primary victims.

“With children out of school, their communities in lockdown and a global recession biting deeper, family stress levels are rising,” Guterres said. “Children are both victims and witnesses of domestic violence and abuse.”

Coronavirus poses a threat to children’s health as well, UN officials said, because of reduced access to quality health care through poverty and high demand.

“Reduced household income will force poor families to cut back on essential health and food expenditures, particularly affecting children, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers,” Guterres said. “Polio vaccination campaigns have been suspended. Measles immunization campaigns have stopped in at least 23 countries. And as health services become overwhelmed, sick children are less able to access care. With the global recession gathering pace, there could be hundreds of thousands additional child deaths in 2020.”

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