COVID-19 is impacting children and families far beyond those it directly infects. Mitigation measures have disrupted life and slowed down economic activity, affecting the lives and livelihoods of the 2.2 billion people living in the region. The World Bank recently projected that due to COVID- 19 economic growth will slow to between 2.1 per cent and minus 0.5 per cent compared to economic growth of 5.8 per cent in 2019.
Schools have closed. And household incomes are being impacted, with significant challenges being faced for people living below, at or just above the poverty line. Many families are living in cramped conditions and are subject to movement constraints. Those living in IDP camps or slums are particularly vulnerable to virus outbreaks.
In the midst of this crisis, children are at heightened risk of abuse, violence and exploitation, psychological distress, well as being left without parental care.
Risks for children increased by the pandemic
Children may lose parental care when their caregivers die, are hospitalized, fall ill or are quarantined. Children who are themselves hospitalized or quarantined may also be deprived of parental care. Measures put in place to control the disease e.g. school closure, may also leave children without parental care during the day (as their parents are at work). Given the concerns around transmission of COVID-19, the traditional care support systems that would step in in the absence of parental care (extended family, including grandparents, community members) may be disrupted.
Children themselves may experience psychological distress as a direct result of COVID-19 or the fear of contracting the disease, as well as the impact of containment measures. This can be worsened by the lack of peer-support, undermined parental support and cessation of social connections for children. Stigmatization and social exclusion due to them or a family member having contracted the disease can further impair the natural capacity of an individual to recover from a distressing situation/event.
Many children are also at risk of exposure to violence, including sexual violence, physical and emotional abuse, as well as witnessing intimate partner violence. This may result from caregivers and other adult family members becoming increasingly stressed and distressed, a sense of support and belonging to a community being disrupted and the use of dysfunctional coping mechanisms to cope with the challenging environment (e.g. alcohol). Spending more time online may also increase risks of exposure to online abuse and exploitation.
These risks are compounded by the fact that containment measures can impact access to and availability of child protection and GBV support services.
Children with disabilities, migrant children, marginalized children and other vulnerable groups are at higher risk of these secondary impacts of COVID-19.
Child protection services are lifesaving
Child protection services which support the most vulnerable and at risk children need to continue. While some services can be provided remotely, it is important that core child protection services, delivered by both government agencies and non-government organisations are categorized as essential and social workers and community workers as key workers, so that they have continued access to affected populations, both to manage existing cases and to identify and respond to new cases, where containment measures are put in place. These frontline workers need to be provided with the skills, knowledge and equipment to keep themselves, children and families, and their own families and communities safe from transmission.
Our country offices, including Cambodia and Indonesia, have supported the development of specific case management guidelines for COVID-19, and trained front line workers, including in the Solomon Islands.
Recognising the particular vulnerability of children in residential care institutions, our country offices in Cambodia, Viet Nam, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea are assessing the needs of children in residential care institutions, focusing on ensuring health, protection and quality of care in institutions, and building the capacity of staff to protect children during the epidemic, and Indonesia has supported the development of guidelines on safety during COVID-19.
Country offices across the region are also disseminating messages, resources and guidance to parents and caregivers to help them cope and manage stress.
Information for caregivers and children
Parents and children are finding online information about the virus extremely useful. Information is also being disseminated on where children and families can access support when they face protection risks, including online. We must make sure that material is age appropriate and in local languages; and where the internet is not available the use of radio, community based loud-speaker systems or distribution of printed materials, through hygiene kits, is being explored.
Maintaining essential child protection services for every child
The impact of COVID-19 is wide ranging with over 1. 2 million cases and over 72,000 deaths globally. (WHO, 7 April). Most countries in East Asia and Pacific have reported cases. The region also includes countries that were the earliest impacted by COVID-19; China, South Korea and Japan. Cases are now also growing in Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand with community transmission.
While the focus is currently on the immediate response, the impact of COVID-19 on children and families will last well after the last case of transmission, and risks of exploitation and abuse, as well as family separation, are likely to increase. Social workers and child protection services are and will become increasingly critical to meet the needs of at risk children and vulnerable families. As well as responding to the immediate impact of COVID-19, Governments need to ensure that protection and wellbeing of children is central to the response, especially amidst the intensifying socioeconomic fallout.