COVID-19 to push 360 mln children into poverty in South Asia: UNICEF

Around 917,000 children and mothers in South Asia may die in the next 12 months, with 881,000 deaths being of children under the age of five, according to the report

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Tuesday 23 June 2020
The South Asian region is likely to have around 360 million children pushed into poverty and food insecurity within the next six months as a result of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic Photo: Vikas Choudhary

The South Asian region is likely to have around 360 million children pushed into poverty and food insecurity within the next six months, according to a UNICEF report released on June 23, 2020. Over 240 million children in the region were already classified as poor, but with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, an additional 120 million children will likely be affected, said the report.

South Asia is home to over 600 million children under 18 years of age, with nearly six out of every 10 of them likely to become poor and food insecure in South Asia, according to UNICEF’s estimates.

While the United Nations has consistently voiced concerns over the impact of COVID-19 on children, this was the first report that focused on the South Asian region.

While children are less susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, they are affected by the fallout. This includes the economic and social consequences of lockdowns and other measures taken in the region’s several countries to counter the pandemic.

Decades of progress risk being wiped out

The report — focusing on both the immediate and long-term consequences of the pandemic in South Asia — said decades of progress on improving the lives of children could suffer.

Decades of progress on children’s health, education and other priorities across South Asia was unraveled and at risk of being wiped out completely by the COVID-19 pandemic, said the report, adding governments must take urgent action to prevent millions of families from slipping back into poverty.

“The side-effects of the pandemic across South Asia — including the lockdown and other measures — have been damaging for children in numerous ways,” said Jean Gough, UNICEF regional director for South Asia.

“But the long-term impact of the economic crisis on children will be on a different scale entirely. Without urgent action now, COVID-19 could destroy the hopes and futures of an entire generation,” he added.

Household incomes can reduce as well, with remittances sent by overseas workers also taking a hit, according to the report.

Households will, thus, spend less on healthcare, good nutrition and education, said the report. It may be noted that South Asia receives over $139 billion from overseas migrants. Remittances to South Asia are, however, projected to decline sharply by 22 per cent to $109 billion in 2020.

881,000 children could die in 12 months

Immunisation, nutrition and other vital health services will be severely affected because of the diversion of resources to battle the pandemic, the report said.

Around 917,000 children and mothers in South Asia may die in the next 12 months, with 881,000 deaths being of children under the age of five, according to the report.

The bulk of these deaths would occur in India and Pakistan, although Bangladesh and Afghanistan could also see significant levels of additional mortality, said the UN. The World Health Organization had earlier raised an alarm over the impact of COVID-19 on children and women.

At least 1.5 million children in Uttar Pradesh, India missed their vaccination doses due to the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19.

In April, Bangladesh reported a 49 per cent reduction in the number of children receiving routine vaccinations compared to March. Within weeks of the lockdown, seven measles outbreaks and around 250 cases were reported in different parts of Nepal.

“The direct risk to children from the virus is much less than that from the disruption to routine health services,” said Paul Rutter, UNICEF’s health advisor for South Asia.

“It is crucial that childbirth, child health and nutrition services remain available for families during COVID-19,” he added.

Food insecurity on the rise

Food insecurity is growing, said the report, citing its own surveys conducted in the region.

The UNICEF survey in Sri Lanka showed 30 per cent of families reduced their food consumption. Another survey in Bangladesh revealed similar results where some of the poorest families were unable to afford three meals a day.

When over half a billion people in South Asia are categorised ‘food insecure’, the projections showed achieving targets set by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be beyond reach.

In fact, India faces significant challenges in meeting targets set under the second SDG, showed Down To Earth’s State of India’s Environment 2020: In Figures.

The UN report also pointed out inequality in internet access and electricity required for distance learning, when over 430 million children depended on remote learning after schools closed due to lockdowns.

Around 32 million children were already out of school and more would join this group of disadvantaged children, according to UNICEF.

Divert resources for social protection schemes

Most countries, including ones in South Asia, do not allocate sufficient budget for children’s rights, pointed out the KidsRights Index 2020.

To mitigate impact on poorer families, the UN has called for immediate action to be taken by governments, including more resources for social protection schemes, including emergency universal child benefits (UCBs) and school feeding programmes.

UCBs valued at two per cent of the Gross Domestic Product over six months would provide populations with an average of between 18 and 46 per cent of their pre-COVID-19 expenditures, with high benefits for the poorest, said UNICEF.

Schools must be re-opened as soon as possible, ensuring safety of students and staff through provision of adequate hand-washing, toilet facilities and proper physical spacing, it said.

Along with immediate action plans, the UN report also outlined strategic plans for next year.

Beginning early 2021, UNICEF called upon the governments to commit to strategies that transition from the response to COVID-19 towards sustainable, climate-resilient development interventions that safeguard the region’s most vulnerable children.

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