Secondary impacts of COVID-19 can’t be secondary concerns

Mar 30, 2020
Like families everywhere, we’ve seen our regular routines completely turned upside down these past few weeks amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. For our kids, the initial excitement of an extended winter break is starting to wear thin as they look for ways to stay engaged and active without being able to see friends or go to school. My partner and I are doing our best to work from home. We’re on the phone with our aging parents to make sure they have the supports they need. We’re ensuring we have enough food and basic supplies in the house. And we’re checking the news…constantly.

Watching. Wondering. Trying not to worry.

We’re relatively young and healthy, so we’re not overly concerned about becoming seriously ill ourselves from COVID-19, but there are so many other concerns: How are we going to ensure our kids continue to learn? Will we be able to access enough food (and toilet paper!)? How will we be affected by an economic recession?

While in a technical sense these might be labelled as ‘secondary impacts’, there’s nothing secondary about them in our minds. They all become a key part of our immediate thinking and response.

As daunting as these impacts are, I can’t help but think of what will happen as the virus continues its spread to lower-income, fragile and/or conflict-affected countries – places where people, particularly children, are already living in extremely precarious, difficult situations.

Bracing for the impacts in fragile contexts

At World Vision, we’re deeply concerned about the impacts the pandemic will have on the most vulnerable children: those with compromised immune systems, and/or living in poverty, overcrowded urban slums and refugee camps, or situations of conflict, violence and fragility where government systems and basic services are limited at the best of times, let alone in a crisis.  

shadow of an adult holding a small child on a background of cracked earth
Shadows of a mother and child facing domestic violence in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. World Vision is deeply concerned about the impacts the pandemic will have on the most vulnerable children. Photo: Zipporah Kageha Karani

Understandably, whether in developed countries or the world’s most difficult places, much attention is going to whether health systems can handle the influx, if there will be enough supplies and ventilators, and if testing can be ramped up quickly enough. 

Yet as crucial as these concerns are, there are other key impacts of COVID-19 and our related response measures that require urgent attention and action: an increased risk of violence against children.

As governments ask millions to stay home and close schools and public spaces in order to contain the outbreak, children, especially the most vulnerable, will face increased risks of psychological distress, violence and social exclusion. 

What can we learn from Ebola?

Crises like COVID-19 both exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and create new ones. Nowhere is this truer than in the world’s fragile and conflict-affected contexts – the most difficult places to be a child.

Recent experiences with Ebola in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are examples of the devastating impacts public health emergencies can have on vulnerable communities. Experts are rightly pointing to the lessons learned from Ebola to aid in the preparations and response to COVID-19. And it’s been encouraging to see governments like Canada’s step up with financial support for these efforts, which will include vital assistance to global health organizations.

But we must not forget a key Ebola lesson learned by the international humanitarian community: this public health crisis was accompanied by spikes in abuse, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, child labour and various other forms of violence against girls and boys.

The reasons for this increase in violence are many and well-documented. Children were left unaccompanied and separated from their parents and caregivers due to death, illness and hospitalization. The normal systems designed to keep children safe – whether child welfare structures or community-based mechanisms – were weakened. Quarantine measures made girls and boys more vulnerable. Child protection responses were either delayed or insufficiently integrated.

Through World Vision’s work to support communities affected by the Ebola outbreak in Eastern DRC – a region already caught in a vicious cycle of conflict and violence –  we’ve witnessed girls and boys being separated from their families, losing caregivers, experiencing stigma and disruption of day-to-day activities like school and playing with friends. Children we consulted told us they felt sad, isolated and stressed as a result.

“I’m always very sad because it’s Dad who was doing everything for us. He was paying for our school fees. He used to bring us food and clothes. But we don’t know how to survive nowadays.”  - Happy, age 10.

School helps keep children safe

As part of governments’ efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, over 150 countries have implemented nationwide closures of schools and educational institutions, affecting 80% of the world’s student population. 

a rusty padlock on a wooden door painted green
Around the world, schools like this one in Mithapukur, Bangladesh, are closed in an effort 'plank the curve' of COVID-19. But for many children schools are an essential lifeline and protective environment. Photo: Batel Sarker

As important as these measures are in ‘planking the curve’, it takes away what can be an essential lifeline and protective environment for girls and boys. Research shows that education can give children a sense of safety, normalcy and hope for the future; that it is a powerful factor in preventing child marriage and other forms of violence; that schools are an essential platform for children to learn about their rights and exercise their agency; and that it is crucial in fostering social cohesion and promoting peace and reconciliation. What’s more, teachers can often be the first point of contact for children experiencing violence and can report or make referrals to child protection systems when girls and boys have experienced violence.   

Going to school can give children a sense of security; a place where they can continue being children, learn and socialize. In situations of conflict, crisis or displacement like Eastern DRC, school helps girls and boys cope with the sense of insecurity and uncertainty around them.

While the disruptions of COVID-19 present many practical challenges for students, caregivers and educators (will students lose the school year? Can they continue to learn online or through other creative formats? How can we support our children and work from home full time?), we must not forget that for many of the world’s children, not going to school is yet another threat to their well-being and protection.

Take action now to protect children

If we don’t act now to prevent and respond to violence against children amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences will be disastrous. Violence is a violation of children’s rights, it negatively impacts girls’ and boys’ health and well-being, it limits their potential and feeds into cycles of further violence and gender inequality.

Ending violence against children is a key priority of World Vision and is forming an essential part of our response as we support communities around the world in dealing with COVID-19. In addition to promoting measures to prevent the spread of the virus and strengthen health systems’ and health workers’ ability to respond, we are undertaking essential activities to keep children safe. This includes raising awareness about child protection; monitoring and responding to increases in neglect, abuse, sexual violence and child labour; working with officials to strengthen care protocols and prevent children being separated from their caregivers; providing psychosocial supports, and more.

As we’ve learned from other outbreaks like Ebola, we can’t afford to wait or treat the risk of violence against girls and boys as a secondary concern. The impacts to children will be immediate and the costs too high. 

Simon Lewchuk is World Vision Canada’s Senior Policy Advisor on Child Rights and Protection. He leads World Vision’s advocacy efforts to address violence against children, including child labour and exploitation in global supply chains. Simon has authored several reports on the topic including Supply Chain Risk Report, Canada’s Child and Forced Labour Problem, and the Straight Goods: Canadian Business Insights on Modern Slavery in Supply Chains. Simon also co-chairs the International Child Protection Network of Canada’s Policy Engagement Working Group. He has appeared on CBC, Global News and CTV, in the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, and as an expert witness before parliamentary committees.

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