CAPE TOWN - The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says the Covid-19 pandemic has affected children on an unprecedented scale, making it the worst crisis for children seen in its 75-year history.
In a report released on Friday, UNICEF said the pandemic was challenging decades of progress on key childhood challenges such as poverty, health, access to education, nutrition, child protection and mental well-being.
It said as the effects as this global pandemic continued to deepen, there was increased poverty, inequality and threat to the rights of children at previously unseen levels.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said throughout history, the organisation had helped shape healthier and safer environments for children across the world with great results for millions. However, the gains were now at risk.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has been the biggest threat to progress for children in our 75-year history.
“While the number of children who are hungry, out of school, abused, living in poverty or forced into marriage is going up, the number of children with access to health care, vaccines, sufficient food and essential services is going down.
“In a year in which we should be looking forward, we are going backward,” Fore said.
The report found that an estimated 100 million additional children were now living in poverty because of the pandemic, a 10% increase since 2019.
Fore said that it will take seven to eight years to return to pre-Covid child poverty levels.
Further evidence from the report states that around 60 million more children are now living in poor households compared to those prior to the pandemic. Additionally, in 2020 over 23 million children missed out on their essential vaccines. This is a nearly 4 million increase from 2019, making it the highest number in 11 years.
“Even before the pandemic, around 1 billion children worldwide suffered at least one severe deprivation, without access to education, health, housing, nutrition, sanitation, or water. This number is now rising as the unequal recovery furthers the growing divides between wealthy and poor children, with the most marginalized and vulnerable hurt the most,” Fore said.
The report also noted that due to nationwide shutdowns more than 1.6 billion children were out of school.
It said mental health conditions affected more than 13% of adolescents aged 10 to 19 worldwide and by October 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic had disrupted critical mental health services in 93% of countries across the globe.
Because of the pandemic, an additional 10 million child marriages can occur before the end of the decade. Child labour numbers have risen to 160 million worldwide, an 8.4 million increase in the last four years.
The report also indicated that an additional 9 million children were at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of increased poverty triggered by the pandemic.
During the peak of the pandemic, 18 billion children living in 104 countries were affected as violence prevention and response services were disrupted. The report also stated that 50 million children suffered from wasting, the most life threatening form of malnutrition and this could increase by another 9 million by 2022 due to the pandemic’s impact on children’s diets, nutrition services and feeding practices.
UNICEF warned of other threats to children that posed extreme threats to their rights. Nearly 1 in 5 (426 million children) lived in conflict zones that were becoming more intense and taking a heavy toll on civilians, in turn affecting children.
It said women and girls were at the highest risk of conflict-related sexual violence and 80% of all humanitarian needs were driven by conflict.
UNICEF also noted that approximately 1 billion children lived in countries that were at extremely high risk from the impact of climate change.
The organisation called for: Investment in social protection, human capital and spending for an inclusive and resilient recovery, ending the pandemic and reversing the alarming rollback in child health and nutrition – including through leveraging UNICEF’s vital role in Covid-19 vaccine distribution.
It also called for “building back stronger by ensuring quality education, protection and good mental health for every child and building resilience to better prevent, respond to, and protect children from crises – including new approaches to end famines, protect children from climate change, and reimagining disaster spending”.
“In an era of a global pandemic, growing conflicts, and worsening climate change, never has a child-first approach been more critical than today.
“We are at a crossroads. As we work with governments, donors and other organizations to begin charting our collective path for the next 75 years, we must keep children first in line for investment and last in line for cuts.
“The promise of our future is set in the priorities we make in our present,” Fore said.