By Victor Koyi, Africa Regional Director, ChildFund International
The world is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Isolation, lockdowns and suppressed economic activity are already hurting families all around the world. I am especially worried about the needy children and families in Africa. Most of these families live from hand to mouth, surviving on one meal a day. These families already struggle to put food on the table, to find clean water and to get healthcare services. For those who live in crowded conditions such as urban informal settlements, social distancing is physically and economically impossible. Families work and live from day to day – they only have resources to last two or three days in their home. COVID-19 – whether it affects vulnerable children and families indirectly, through economic disruption, or directly, by spreading throughout their communities – could cause devastating, exponential harm.
As more African countries continue to experience a rise in the number of coronavirus cases, and economies begin to slow down, children are vulnerable in many ways.
One is the lack of food leading to poor health and nutrition. According to the 2019 State of the World’s Children Report by UNICEF, there are still millions of malnourished children in the world. The number of stunted children is falling in every continent except Africa, where there is also an increase in the number of overweight and obese children. Globally, at least half of all children under five suffer from hidden hunger: a lack of essential nutrients that often goes unnoticed until it’s too late. This pandemic will most likely exacerbate the situation. Take for example the case of a single mother living in a slum, who since schools have been closed, is forced to stay at home and take care of her children. Previously, she could leave her children in school and go out in search of low-paying casual jobs in order to buy food and other necessities. She does not have savings, mostly debts. Now, she is unable to provide. Let alone the fact that urban informal settlements are hotspots for the spread of the virus. For families living in poverty, missing work means missing meals. With governments calling for more organizations to apply the work-from-home policy and others closing shop, there are fewer work opportunities, which renders this mother almost hopeless, without a source of income.
Elsewhere, in rural areas, a lot of families grow some of their food, but not all of it, and in some cases, they sell it in markets to get money to buy other essential foods and items. If markets are closed, this will affect children’s health and overall wellbeing. In other cases, school meals have been a lifeline for children, as they are often the only regular and nutritious meals they receive. Now that schools are closed, this is no longer an option. Even if these children don’t get the coronavirus, their nutritional status could suffer significantly.
Children’s safety is also an area of concern. When emergencies occur, social systems tend to break down, and children become more vulnerable and exposed to violence. In this case, the perpetrators are not only external parties but may include parents. People are under stress, they are worried and scared, and they take out that anxiety on their children. The same single mother living in a slum who is unable to provide for her family can easily fall into depression. As she confronts life’s challenges daily, chances are high that she will take out her frustrations on her children. Unfortunately, curfews, quarantine, stay-at-home policies can increase the risk of exploitation and abuse among children. This season presents a huge challenge especially for girls. Being out-of-school, means a greater risk of unwanted pregnancy and early or forced marriages.
In order to address this, stakeholders should develop innovative safe methods of supporting such families. Community based child protection mechanisms should be activated. Disseminating messages on parenting during this stressful period to address the growing anxiety in children and caregivers as well as promoting awareness on Covid-19 preventive and protective measures is crucial. However, messages are not enough. A hungry person will not eat a message. In addition to supporting governments to create awareness on the virus, at ChildFund, we are developing an e-voucher system through which needy families will constantly receive money to buy basic commodities, including food items during this period. These families desperately need money, and they need it now.
Lack of water and proper sanitation is also a big concern. Washing hands is a challenge in poor communities given that clean water and soap are often in short supply. In most communities, piped water is a luxury. Slum dwellers live in homes without running water and rely on communal water points, where they have to stand in long queues as they wait their turn. No social distancing. In rural areas, families fetch water from rivers or boreholes. They are forced to make several trips to meet the household’s demands. During this period, they will be forced to make even more trips if they are to follow the guidance about handwashing to protect themselves from Covid-19.
Millions of children living in vulnerable communities in Africa will suffer from the devastating socio-economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic if we do not act now. Lack of support to these children and families may spell a disaster. These are realities that we must confront and address immediately by providing innovative and sustainable solutions. There is dire need for concerted efforts by key stakeholders, including governments and non-state actors, to ensure that we respond efficiently and effectively to safeguard the most vulnerable children in society. We must act now by rapidly scaling up support for children whose families’ income is insecure and provide the necessary social protection, as we work towards having a world in which every child realizes their rights and achieves their full potential.