UNICEF : Children worst hit due to pandemic in India

‘Pandemic undermining nutrition with the worst consequences in India’

By Abdul Bari Masoud

New Delhi/ New York:  Ahead of World Children’s Day, UNICEF warned in a new report released today of significant and growing consequences for children as the COVID-19 pandemic lurches toward a second year.

The report titled as ‘Averting a Lost COVID Generation’ is the first UNICEF report to comprehensively outline the dire and growing consequences for children as the pandemic drags on. It shows that while symptoms among infected children remain mild, infections are 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.

The report finds that, as of 3 November, in 87 countries with age-disaggregated data, children and adolescents under 20 years of age accounted for 1 in 9 of COVID-19 infections, or 11 per cent 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.

It paints grim picture in India as 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 report adds.  The pandemic has further exposed the fragility of children, less by the virus itself but much more by the indirect and long-term fallout it further underlines as the Indian government response to the pandemic came for sharp criticism which failed to provide timely help to millions of migrants workers and working classes who were hit hard due to the abrupt announcement of   pandemic induced lockdown.

Besides nutrition, the UNICEF report also highlights the education sector. “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 Centers. 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 report states that India made steady progress in newborn mortality rate (NMR) in the last five years before COVID-19, reducing the NMR from 26 in 2014 to 23 in 2017, saving about 75,000 newborn lives each year. But it warns that there is a danger of losing some of these gains made due to the impact of COVID-19 on health systems.

On  sanitation situation, the report says the initiative 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 has been at risk because of the socio-economic stress and migration resulting due to the COVID-19.

The key theme for World Children’s Day celebrations in India is “Climate Change.” Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India Representative, said the twin crisis presented by COVID-19 and Climate Change is worrisome.

“We cannot forget the fact that the COVID-19 crisis is unfolding against the backdrop of the climate crisis. The increasing risk of public health emergencies, including pandemics like COVID‐19, is itself a consequence of climate change. This pandemic and our response provide an opportunity for generations to come together and do things differently – equitably, inclusively and sustainably – as we address the twin crises of COVID-19 and Climate Change.”

While Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director said it has been a persistent myth throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that children are barely affected by the disease.

Nothing could be further from the truth as children can get sick and can spread the disease, this is just the tip of the pandemic iceberg, she added.

‘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. The future of an entire generation is at risk.”

While children can transmit the virus to each other and to 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.

COVID-related disruptions to critical health and social services for children pose the most serious threat to children, the report says. Using new data from UNICEF surveys across 140 countries, it notes that:

  • Around one-third of the countries analyzed witnessed a drop of at least 10 per cent 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 per cent 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.
  • 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 per cent of the enrolled students worldwide.
  • 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 per cent rise that will translate into more than 10,000 additional child deaths per month – mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
  • 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 per cent, or an additional 150 million children by mid-2020.

“This World Children’s Day, we are asking governments, partners and the private sector to listen to children and prioritize their needs,” Fore said. “As we all reimagine the future and look ahead toward a post-pandemic world, children must come first.”

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