As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in large countries, including neighbour India, there are growing concerns that it could impact as many as 600 million children in South Asia, limiting their potential and ultimately changing their futures. The Sri Lankan Government has effectively worked to mitigate the outbreak but its responsibilities continue to grow unabated.
According to a regional report released this week by UNICEF, immunisation, nutrition and other vital health services have been severely disrupted by the virus, potentially threatening the lives of up to 459,000 children and mothers in Sri Lanka over the next six months. Key among the concerns is an increase in food insecurity.
A UNICEF survey conducted in May in Sri Lanka showed that 30% of families surveyed had reduced their food consumption. Of these, over 80% reported reduced consumption of proteins such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, and 54% reported reductions in consumption of fruits and vegetables. Given that before COVID-19, 39% of children did not consume any iron-rich foods, this change in diet is likely to worsen rates of malnutrition among already vulnerable children, with potential life-long consequences. With schools closed, more than 430 million children globally have had to rely on remote learning which has only partially filled the gap; many households – especially in rural areas – have no electricity, let alone internet access. There are concerns that some disadvantaged students may join the nearly 32 million children who were already out of school before COVID-19 struck.
Phone helplines are reporting a surge in calls from children suffering violence and abuse during confinement at home, which has also been reported in Sri Lanka.
The regional report also notes that life-saving vaccination campaigns against measles, polio and other diseases must resume, as should work to help the estimated 7.7 million children in South Asia who suffer from severe wasting – more than half the global total. Schools should reopen as soon as possible provided adequate handwashing and other physical distancing precautions are in place. In recent years, rising levels of prosperity produced significant health, education and other advances for children in South Asia. Improvements in infant and maternal mortality were matched by declines in the number of out-of-school children and in child marriages.
But the economic turmoil triggered by COVID-19 is hitting families across the region hard. Large-scale job losses and wage cuts have coincided with the loss of remittances from overseas workers and from tourism. UNICEF projections show that over the coming six months as many as 120 million more children could be pushed into poverty and food insecurity, joining some 240 million children already classified as poor.
In order to mitigate the impact on families, the regional report says that Governments should immediately direct more resources towards social protection schemes, including emergency universal child benefits and school feeding programs. However, this is easier said than done as Sri Lanka’s Government simply does not have the fiscal space to deal with more handouts. This will be an ongoing challenge for the rest of this year and beyond as countries with weak macroeconomic fundamentals attempt to support the economy as well as find ways to improve social welfare nets. Since welfare is often fractured and politicised scaling it up in the medium term can come with a myriad of challenges.
Pushing forward economic reforms such as reducing losses of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and improving fiscal discipline would be the best way to creating welfare support for vulnerable groups such as children.