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Kids are suffering worldwide from ongoing pandemic

This crisis has “turned back the clock on years of progress” made on children's health and wellbeing, says Dutch charity KidsRights.

It's only been three months since I wrote about The Lancet, World Health Organization, and UNICEF's joint report on global child wellbeing. At the time there were two main threats to children – climate change and predatory commercial exploitation – but now, sadly, a third threat could likely be added to that list, the coronavirus pandemic.

The WHO is now saying that, should a second wave of the virus occur, it would spell disaster for millions of children worldwide. This sentiment is shared by the creators of KidsRights, a Dutch-based annual survey on children's global wellbeing. Founder Marc Dullaert told The Guardian, “This crisis turns back the clock on years of progress made on the wellbeing of children. Therefore, a strong focus for children’s rights is needed more than ever.”

Ongoing school closures, which have affected an estimated 1.5 billion children worldwide, will make them even more vulnerable to forced labor, underage marriage, and teenage pregnancy than they already are, and worsen the deep poverty in which many already live, due to governments' dwindling funds. KidsRights says that the UN estimates “an extra 42 to 66 million children could fall into extreme poverty as a result of the crisis this year.”

This means worsening health and starvation. Children everywhere, including the United States, are missing out on meals provided by schools. As I wrote back in March, “Two-thirds of the 31 million American kids who regularly eat school lunches depend heavily on those meals to nourish their bodies.”

In many places, the usual vaccination programs for childhood diseases such as polio and measles have been suspended in an effort to get all hands on deck for the coronavirus response, but the KidsRights survey says this will result in a spike in infant mortality, as many are left susceptible to other illnesses. “So far, the suspension of measles immunization campaigns in at least 23 countries affects more than 78 million children up to the age of 9.”

While not mentioned in the KidsRights survey, I immediately thought of the effects of the pandemic on North American and European kids, who may not face the same extreme poverty of many developing nations, but are struggling with other kinds of discrimination and erosion of rights. I hear from my own friend circle (and read online) that they're spending endless hours on handheld devices at home, while understandably stressed parents try to do their jobs from home. It's OK to be somewhat more lax during a crisis, but so much excess screen time will still come at a real mental and emotional cost.

Then there's the lack of outdoor time and exercise. Under severe lockdown rules in places like Spain and France, children were not allowed out of the house for more than an hour a day, and not supposed to go farther than one kilometer from home. It makes sense to slow the spread of COVID-19, but other closures make less sense to me. In my town, dog parks have reopened, but playgrounds, playing fields, and beaches remain closed, despite the excruciating heat. (One exception is trails, which are open, and ironically put people into much closer contact with each other than a beach would.) Dogs are being given a place to run freely, beyond their usual walks, while children are still expected to cope with the heat and boredom in their own backyards or balconies. It seems unfair, especially if mandating personal protection equipment and adult supervision could allow for greater movement of children – and improved mental wellbeing.

This is, to me, yet another example of the discrimination that so many children face on a regular basis, even when the world is normal. KidsRights gives other examples, such as Australia dropping asylum seekers' claims when children are involved; the ongoing stigmatization of Roma children in the UK; and ongoing smear campaigns against searching for and rescuing migrant children in the Mediterranean region. And, of course, there's the ever-present discrimination against girls: “In 91 of the 182 countries surveyed, girls are discriminated against and do not enjoy the same rights as boys.”

In some cases children are doing well during the lockdown, enjoying less busy schedules, more downtime for play and creativity, and face-to-face time with parents. But this report reveals that these are the lucky exceptions, that most children worldwide are facing extreme difficulty right now and need our support more than ever. In Dullaert's words, “Giving children the cold shoulder can be disastrous in the short [term], but more so in the long term, for both the current and the future generation.” We cannot forget the kids in all of this mess.

This crisis has “turned back the clock on years of progress” made on children's health and wellbeing, says Dutch charity KidsRights.