OPINION | Unicef: Covid-19 - children once again find themselves on the frontline

Children wear face masks to protect against the spread of Covid-19. (Mehedi Hasan, NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Children wear face masks to protect against the spread of Covid-19. (Mehedi Hasan, NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Covid-19 has killed more than 40 000 people worldwide, though just a handful of these are thought to be children. Why is it then that children are suddenly suffering? And what can parents and governments do to help? James Elder explains.

When it comes to the pandemic that is Covid-19, a common conversation has been that children have escaped with minimal damage. 

That has changed.  

Coronavirus is now reaching children and families far beyond those it directly infects. Schools are closing. Family incomes are being lost. Parents are struggling to care for their children and make ends meet.

The protection risks for children are mounting.  

While the virus predominantly continues to threaten the health of older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions, the sheer scale of the crisis means that children are again on the frontline.  

As it stands, hundreds of millions of children around the world are out of school; hundreds of millions more face rising threats to their safety and well-being.  

We are in uncharted territory, and yet we have experiences to draw from which serve as a warning.

Increased rates of abuse and exploitation of children have occurred during previous public health emergencies.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, for example, contributed to spikes in child labor, neglect, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies.

At the same time, more children under five years of age died during that outbreak - due to a lack of essential services - than the total number of people who died from Ebola.  

In this current coronavirus crisis, stress and anxiety also loom large over children.

At the start of this year children in this region faced the grave issues of unemployment, a learning crisis, and climate change.

A pandemic has been now added to their list of very real worries.  

So, in a time of seemingly relentless bad news, here are four things governments can do to help their children; and four things for parents and caregivers. 

For Governments:  

1. Train health, education and child services staff on Covid-19-related child protection risks, including on the prevention of sexual exploitation, and increase information-sharing on referral and other support services for children.  

2. Secure the delivery of essential health services. Strategies to do this include: ring-fence midwives and nurses providing perinatal care; train community health workers on key messages on Covid-19; and emphasize the delivery of public health services by providing timely and effective treatment of malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea. 

3. Provide financial and material assistance to families whose income generating opportunities have been affected; 

4. When it comes to kids out of school, develop, broadcast and publish distance content (radio and online are great) ... and print and safely distribute textbooks and workbooks for home study. 

For Parents & Caregivers: 

1. Help kids feel like part of the solution: all those basics around hand-washing with soap, not touching your face, and social distancing, mean that children can be part of the solution. It's important parents remind children that these actions mean they are helping protect both themselves, and their community.  

2. Talk. Even better, listen: invite your children to talk about what's going on. See how much they know and follow that lead. From "ice cream is bad" to "hold your breathe for 10 seconds" there is a lot of ridiculous and potentially harmful misinformation doing the rounds. Find out what your child already knows and go from there. 

Then, refer to "1" above.  Make sure you know the basics: here are two great sources: UNICEF and the World Health Organisation. Oh, and don't trivialise children's worries. This is without a doubt the biggest event in their life.  

3. Stop talking and play: have corona-free time. Ensure Covid-19 doesn’t dominate every conversation in your home. Listen to music, sing, play games. Kids are wired for play. It's what they do best. And don't be afraid to get low-tech. Cardboard boxes and plastic bottles are great. Make a ball from a bunch of socks. Get on your hands and knees and get ready to be a horse.   

4. Let kids eat first: Amid the shutdowns and isolation, people’s finances are being badly hurt. For many people, staying at home means no income. If things get really tough, make sure kids eat first.  

A final word: Amid a global pandemic, it’s tempting to feel powerless.

But every major crisis we have ever faced has been solved by people.

Stay connected (by phone not visiting) with loved ones.

Find a way to help a neighbour.

And do the basics around isolation and handwashing.  

Hugs may be out, but helping one another is not.   

- James Elder is UNICEF’s head of communication in Eastern and Southern Africa. Twitter: @1james_elder 

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