A Unicef report says that while covid symptoms among infected children remain mild, the number of infections is rising and the longer-term impact on the education, nutrition and well-being of an entire generation of children and young people can be life-altering
A new report released by Unicef has pointed out that children and adolescents account for 1 in 9 of reported covid-19 infections globally, and that the pandemic threatens to cause irreversible harm to their education, nutrition and well-being. The report questions the perception that young people are least affected by the coronavirus.
The report—titled 'Averting a Lost COVID Generation'—warns of significant and growing consequences for children as the pandemic approaches its second year. It says that while symptoms among infected children remain mild, the number of infections is rising and the longer-term impact on the education, nutrition and well-being of an entire generation of children and young people can be life-altering.
“Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, there has been a persistent myth that children are barely affected by the disease. Nothing could be further from the truth," said Henrietta Fore, Unicef executive director.
“While children can get sick and can spread the disease, this is just the tip of the pandemic iceberg. Disruptions to key services and soaring poverty rates pose the biggest threat to children. The longer the crisis persists, the deeper its impact on children’s education, health, nutrition and well-being will be. The future of an entire generation is at risk," said Fore.
The report points out that, as of 3 November, in 87 countries whose age-disaggregated data is available, children and adolescents under the age of 20 years accounted for 1 in 9 of covid-19 infections, that is 11% of the 25.7 million infections reported by these countries. More reliable, age-disaggregated data on infection, deaths and testing is needed to better understand how the crisis impacts the most vulnerable children and guide the response, the report said.
While children can transmit the virus to each other and to people of older age groups, there is strong evidence that with basic safety measures in place, the net benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the costs of closing them, the report notes. Schools are not a main driver of community transmission, and children are more likely to get the virus outside of school settings. Looking at the situation in India, according to data from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), available on the dashboard of the National Centre for Disease Control, 11.89% of covid-19 cases reported in India are in the under 20 age group.
The report also highlighted that in India, 1.5 million school closures have impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary education, and 28 million children who were attending pre-school education in anganwadi centres. This is in addition to more than 6 million girls and boys who were already out of school prior to the covid-19 crisis.
“The covid-19 pandemic is undermining nutrition with the worst consequences being borne by young children. In India, despite the commendable change in improved child nutrition indicators, an estimated 20 million children under five years of age are suffering from wasting, over 40 million children are chronically malnourished and more than half of Indian women aged 15-49 years are anaemic. The pandemic has further exposed the fragility of children, less by the virus itself but much more by the indirect and long-term fallout," the report said.
In 2019, 18 million people in 53 Unicef-supported districts in India accessed toilets for the first time. Unicef and partners are now supporting the ministry of human resource development to enable access to safe sanitation, water supply and hygiene spaces for children in 150,000 vulnerable schools (including separate toilets for girls and boys in schools) across the country. “This initiative seeks to improve access to and quality of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools, in line with the government's five-star benchmark, which Unicef helped institutionalize. However, the socio-economic stress and migration resulting due to the covid-19 put this access and practice of using toilets at risk," the report said.
It further said that covid-19 related disruptions to critical health and social services for children pose the most serious threat to children. Using new data from Unicef surveys across 140 countries, the report highlighted that—around one-third of the countries analyzed witnessed a drop of at least 10% in coverage for health services such as routine vaccinations, outpatient care for childhood infectious diseases, and maternal health services. Fear of infection is a prominent reason.
“There is a 40% decline in the coverage of nutrition services for women and children across 135 countries. As of October 2020, 265 million children were still missing out on school meals globally. More than 250 million children under 5 could miss the life-protecting benefits of vitamin A supplementation programmes," the report said.
It also said that 65 countries reported a decrease in home visits by social workers in September 2020, compared to the same time last year. More alarming data from the report include—as of November 2020, 572 million students are affected across 30 country-wide school closures—33% of the enrolled students worldwide.
The report has warned than an estimated 2 million additional child deaths and 200,000 additional stillbirths could occur over a 12-month period with severe interruptions to services and rising malnutrition. An additional 6 to 7 million children under the age of 5 will suffer from wasting or acute malnutrition in 2020, a 14% rise that will translate into more than 10,000 additional child deaths per month—mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the report said, adding that globally the number of children living in multidimensional poverty—without access to education, health, housing, nutrition, sanitation or water—is estimated to have soared by 15%, or an additional 150 million children by mid-2020.
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