Scourge of Pandemic on Children in South Asia | Daily News

Scourge of Pandemic on Children in South Asia

A year and a half into the pandemic, schools and colleges across South Asia have slowly begun to reopen, with precautionary measures in place. With fears of an impending third wave, however, it is still going to be sometime before classes resume in full swing and we get attuned to a new normal. It will be even longer before the magnitude of the multiple and differential long-term impacts of the closure of schools and maternal and child care services become starkly apparent. A report by UNICEF has highlighted that between March 2020 and February 2021, schools across countries in South Asia had been closed for an average of 146 instruction days; an estimated 9 million children are expected to drop out of school permanently, half of them being girls. A South Asia report released by World Bank in September last year estimated loss of 0.5 years of Learning-Adjusted Years of Schooling (LAYS) following five months of being out of school, falling from 6.5 LAYS to 6.0 LAYS and a 5 per cent fall in lifetime earnings. A year on, this would have further increased.

Essential maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health services across South Asia were also shut down for most of last year and have yet not resumed in full everywhere. A spike in child marriages, an additional 0.4 million adolescent pregnancies, and an increase in maternal and infant mortality due to stoppage of nutrition benefits, ante and postnatal care, and immunisation services, are also among the projections by UNICEF. Child nutrition outcomes, in particular, are expected to worsen. The region also has a large informal sector and children engaged in work and child labour would already have increased in the aftermath of COVID-19. And then there are the COVID-19 orphans, children who have lost their parents to the pandemic, making particularly the poor among them homeless and more vulnerable to exploitation, not to speak of the emotional vacuum and psychological trauma caused by suddenly losing one’s parents. Child trafficking and abuse are reported to be increasing.

Even before the pandemic, the status of children in the region was far from desired, with South Asia reported to be housing the largest number of undernourished children in the world. There are social safety nets in all countries that target women and children from poor households. Directives were issued in India, for instance, to provide dry rations or cash in lieu of the supplementary nutrition provided to pregnant/lactating women and children (0-6 years) at the Integrated Child Development Scheme Centres, and hot-cooked noon meal in schools, including for children attending tribal residential schools who had been sent back home following the lockdown; implementation and delivery has, however, left much to be desired. Realising Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 of Zero Hunger by 2030 now seems to be a mirage, not to speak of SDG 4—inclusive and equitable quality education for all.

Poverty and hunger

According to an ILO report in 2015, South Asia also had among the highest prevalence of child labour in the world, with nearly 17 million children (5-17 years) engaged in child labour. Loss of livelihoods, and an increase in the number of hungry and food insecure are other consequences of the lockdown restrictions following the pandemic. In Dhaka, where this author is based, there is a marked increase in the number of beggars on the streets, especially after the recent lockdown in July to control the second wave. When one goes to the local grocery shop, there are always a few women and/or children who crowd behind seeking alms.

There are young kids cradling a younger sibling on their hip knocking on the car window as one makes one’s way through the city’s notorious traffic snarls. This was not the case even a few months ago. Bangladesh already has a high rate of child marriage, with over half the number of married girls in their mid-twenties reported to have been married before they turned 18. One shudders to think of how many more girl children in countries of the region will be forced into child marriage, in the face of poverty and hunger.

With schools closed, the son of the local grocery shop owner, a bright youngster in his early teens, now assists his father in the shop. There must be so many like him. While the child is helping his father and keeping himself engaged productively, this is the age when he should be studying and playing with children of his age. Schools and colleges have been engaged in conducting classes online for more than a year now. This has been a challenge for both teachers and students, to adapt to using technology for taking and attending class, conduct assessments etc.

The challenge has been even more daunting for students in lower income households who cannot afford the luxury of a smart phone or have to share one phone between them, not to even speak of a laptop or computer. There have been stories in the media in India, of children committing suicide because their parents could not afford a smart phone.

Inequity and Digital Divide

Further, there is the challenge of connectivity in many rural and remote areas in countries of the region. There have also been reports in the media of children having to walk many miles to get connectivity. A report by the National Sample Survey Organisation in India on Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in 2019, reported that in 2017-18, only 4.4 per cent rural households had a computer and 14.9 per cent had internet facility; the corresponding figures among urban households was 23.4 per cent and 42 per cent respectively. The numbers clearly expose and question the efficacy of e-learning. COVID-19 has further exposed this inequity and the huge digital divide.

The prolonged period of school closure and being restrained from group exchange, interaction and play due to COVID-19 restrictions is also beginning to manifest itself in mental and emotional stress among many children, calling for counselling care. In short, there are multiple ways in which the pandemic has affected children across all strata of society in South Asia as also, perhaps, in other parts of the world.

There has to be an understanding of these factors as we learn to adapt and come to terms with the pandemic and how it has affected our lives. For many children, it may sadly end up being lost childhoods and scarred lives. There has to be a concerted effort on all fronts to minimise this kind of negative impact and handle children with care and sensitivity, with due attention to both their physical and mental health. Policy-makers in the government, education officials, teachers, and parents, all need to be cognizant of this and rise up to the challenge. The pandemic should be used as an opportunity by policy-makers for renewed effort and higher investment to bridge the divides and inequities on multiple fronts, and make a better future for our children.

- Observer Research Foundation

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