Children of the pandemic: The indirect effects of a deadly virus on health, education and happiness

The pandemic is reversing decades of hard-earned progress in areas such as health and education for children. Image credit: Image by soumen82hazra from Pixabay

While the past few months have changed our lives completely, no other group has been more affected by the pandemic and uncertainties revolving around it, than children. A recent report titled ‘Upended Lives’, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has said that an additional 2,400 children in South Asia could die every day as an indirect consequence of the pandemic. The report adds that the pandemic is undoing decades of progress made on health, education and other areas.

With reduced access to healthcare systems, life-saving medicines, proper nutrition and education and movement restrictions, children – both young and adolescent - may come off worse this pandemic. We take a look at the indirect effects the pandemic has had on children, globally.   

Delayed immunisation and healthcare: A study published in The Lancet Global Health Journal by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, warns that up to 3,00,000 children could die in India alone within the next six months, as a result of disruptions in immunisation programmes, reductions in routine health service coverage levels, and increase in child wasting.

The fear of contracting the virus at clinics and the closure of medical facilities has led to delays in the administration of essential vaccinations and accessing healthcare facilities in case of emergency. This heightens the risk of a child getting infected with the disease that the vaccine was meant to protect against. A widespread delay in vaccination could also threaten herd immunity that has been developed against many diseases, over time.   

As per a report from the Independent Accountability Panel (IAP) of the United Nations, titled Caught in the COVID-19 storm, 13.5 million children missed out on vaccinations for life-threatening diseases such as polio, measles, yellow fever, cholera and meningitis, due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Nearly 80 million children under the age of 1 could be affected by the suspension of vaccination services in at least 68 countries. Further, the pandemic has led to vaccine shortages in more than 20 countries.  

Food insecurity: Malnutrition has been a silent killer in India, even before the pandemic. As per the Global Nutrition Report 2020, India is home to half of the world’s wasted children or those who suffer from low weight for height. Over 40 million children are also chronically malnourished.

This has been exacerbated further due to the pandemic. The report from IAP projects that wasting due to malnutrition could increase by 10-50 per cent, due to COVID-19.  With the closure of schools, 370 million children worldwide are missing out on mid-day meals, which, in many cases, are the sole nutritious meal these children have access to in a day.  In India, while some states are trying to continue mid-day meals schemes by distributing ration to school children, dry ration cannot substitute warm cooked meals provided in schools.

Further, with many losing their livelihoods, and with pay losses and dwindling finances, families are forced to cut corners financially, often at the cost of nutritious food, which children may have otherwise had access to.  

Domestic violence: Amongst the most alarming indirect effects of the lockdown is the increased amount of domestic violence that children are being subjected to in a place where they should be safe – their own homes. With job losses, pay cuts and mental health problems induced by isolation and curbs placed on movement, overall frustration and anxiety levels have increased. In many cases, this is directed towards children, who are subject to physical, mental and sexual abuse.

The IAP report also projects that 15 million more cases of gender-based violence could be anticipated for every three months of the lockdown. Further, due to delays in the implementation of programmes to end such harmful practices, two million additional cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) could take place over the next decade.

Increased screen time: The shift from physical to virtual classrooms has increased screen time for children, who are forced to stay in front of their mobile phones or laptops for prolonged periods of time. Added on to this is the time already spent playing video games, watching television, socialising with friends or completing online activities.

The dangers associated with excessive screen time are well documented – it has been known to hamper learning capacities in children and cause attention deficit. It could also lead to several disorders such as obesity, eye damage, hypertension and disrupted sleep patterns. 

With more children going online at a much younger age, and without the required know-how to protect themselves, children are at a heightened risk of falling prey to cyberbullies and sexual predators.  Cyberbullies come in many forms – those circulating unwanted material, spreading morphed photos of children, sending threatening emails or messages or emotionally blackmailing children.

Experts suggest that parents monitor the devices their children are using, and spend more quality time with their children to mitigate the negative effects that added screen time may have on children.  

Mental and physical health: As per reports, 30 per cent of children or parents who are under quarantine or isolation at home, suffer from acute stress disorder, depression and other adjustment problems. Reduced mobility, inadequate accommodation facilities or having to live in cramped quarters, lack of social life, no physical school, stress and violence at home and the inability to continue with outdoor activities has led to increased cases of isolation and aggressive behaviour among children.

The pandemic has negatively impacted diet, sleep routines and physical activity among children, heightening the risk of obesity. This is more so in the case of children who already suffer from obesity. A study conducted by the University of Buffalo on 41 overweight children in Italy’s Verona during confinement through March and April suggested that children ate one extra meal, slept for an extra half an hour every day and spent nearly five extra hours sedentary on digital devices leading to an increase in obesity. During the lockdown, physical activity decreased by more than two hours a week, while the intake of sugary food, sodas and processed food increased.  

Inequality in education: The British charity, Save the Children, has warned that with around 1.6 billion children shut off from schools, an entire generation have had their education disrupted. The report warns that the crisis could force a further 90-117 million children into poverty, while 10 million children may never return to school after the pandemic.

In India, as per the UNICEF, the lockdown has impacted around 247 million children enrolled in primary and secondary education, apart from the 28 million children who were undergoing pre-primary education at Anganwadis. This, the report states, is in addition to the more than six million children who were out of school pre-pandemic. While many schools, in India and worldwide, have tried to continue educational programmes online and through other e-platforms and television channels, the millions of students who do not have access to any digital media, lose out.