Global Perspectives | Bericht | 12. Juni 2020

Christian Schneider & Dr Yasmin Ali Haque: “More than 86 million children might be further pushed into a situation of poverty.”

GP Video-Interview on the impact of COVID-19 on children and the challenges they are facing in slums across India and in conflict zones

Even before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus disease a global pandemic in March 2020, UNICEF had already rushed tons of medical supplies to the front lines in affected countries. To date, the organization has delivered millions of protective items for health workers, medical equipment and hygiene supplies and is leading on preventative actions in communities. With schools closed and education disrupted across the globe, UNICEF is also working to help children keep learning even under the most difficult circumstances.

GPI sat down for a short interview with Christian Schneider, Executive Director of the German Committee for UNICEF and Dr Yasmin Haque, UNICEF Representative to India to talk with them about the impact of COVID-19 on children with a special focus on the situation of girls, the challenges they are facing in slums across India and in conflict zones, and why we cannot afford to give up on multilateral solutions.

GP Video Interview with Christian Schneider & Dr Yasmin Ali Haque

The COVID-19 virus and measures to mitigate its impact have severe consequences for the lives of millions around the world. Mr. Schneider, how would you describe the impact of COVID-19 on children? And what does UNICEF project for the coming months?

Schneider: Of course, it is a global crisis. It is a global pandemic, a first of its kind, and it is a health crisis. But I think three months into this global crisis, we must also say from a UNICEF perspective that this is also a children’s crisis. And it is a children’s crisis with regard to the immediate consequences related to the health and well-being of children. It is also a children’s crisis when it comes to the social consequences that also have an immediate impact on children.

Let me just briefly go to the first point. When it comes to health, we do not know yet how the virus will impact on children when they are in a state of malnutrition or already in bad health. What we see already is that the whole efforts to counter the pandemic and the crisis situation we are in is already impacting on the health state of children in many countries.

When we look at the social consequences for children, we already saw immediate impact in many countries in Africa, Asia and other regions because parents of these children immediately lost their jobs. They lost the household income, which had direct consequences for the health and nutritional situation of many, many children.

And what we now see after a few more weeks in the pandemic is, of course, and that is a big worry for UNICEF across the globe, that children might draw on risk and be pushed into child labor. Families might go back to hazardous practices for children – when we think about child marriage – so that children, especially girls, run a double risk with regard to the health situation and overall.

The pandemic is proving especially challenging for the millions of children who are already living in extremely poor urban areas or slums across the Global South. In India alone, an estimated more than eight million children under the age of six are living in slums across the country. Dr. Haque, how are these children coping with the crisis and what needs to be done to ensure their health and safety during this time, especially that of girls and young women, as Mr. Schneider has also mentioned?

Haque: I really thank you for focusing on this, because what the pandemic is showing us is that some of the invisible disparities that [usually] remain hidden are now really coming full force and hitting us in the face. Especially when we look at the case of India, today we are close to 300.000 cases throughout the country. And of those cases, about close to 70 percent of them are in 20 districts which have very high urban high-density settlements. So, a huge burden of this is in populations – think of the living conditions in the slum – where you cannot social distance, where you do not have access to the proper hygiene measures that you need, where children are already vulnerable to disease, they are vulnerable to malnutrition, they are vulnerable to violence in their commune. So, it is really important that we pay attention to this.

We also need to understand that slums are not homogenous. Every slum is different in a way. The people coming together are different. And many of the slums are of migrant workers. And that is another issue that has come to the forefront. We estimate that over a million migrant workers are on the move just from Mumbai alone, which is one of the worst hit areas. And many of the migrants are children. In many cases, we have seen that five out of 10 migrant girls are actually migrating because they have been married off under the age of 18. So, within this situation, as it is, they are vulnerable. Plus, the stigma that we see associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, they bear a much wider burden of that or a much wider share of it. And so, we have had to work very closely with WHO, with local NGOs, with municipalities to focus on areas that we have not necessarily delved into as much before.

Because as Christian said, children are still hidden in a way, but we know the impact on them is going to go far beyond the immediate obvious pandemic, especially on girls. And thanks, Christian, for highlighting the plight of those. Because what are the coping mechanisms of poor families? We know it is either children going into labor, or girls being put into marriage as a way of the family coping with it. Today is the World Day against Child Labor (12 June 2020). And UNICEF and I have come out really to focus on how the pandemic is likely to push many more children into labor situation. So, it is important that we look at social protection systems that support universalization of schemes that do not spend too much time on looking at targeting and determining who are the poor, but really look at all children that are at risk, are vulnerable. And we need to put in place those systems that support them.

If you maybe allow a short follow up question. One issue is, of course, education. And for millions of children there is also a huge gap in access to, for instance, digital opportunities. What can be done in slums or these areas for these millions of young children to get access to education during these times?

Haque: Right. We are in a situation now where we estimate that we are reaching about 33 million children with some form of remote learning. What we are also seeing is the disparity is growing. Children who have less access to digital technology are children who are poor, whether they are in an urban slum or whether they are in a rural area or in one of the tribal areas – those who are disadvantaged and getting left further behind. So, it is going to require a lot more for us to pull them back.

Schools in India are not going to be opening till after August, which means for months some children will not have had access. So, we are really trying to look at, is digital learning the only way? What other means can we be putting together? How can communities and smaller groups bring children in smaller numbers to keep learning opportunities going? So, it is really challenging us to think beyond the normal. It is easy to say digital learning. But when we look at the digital divide in countries like India, where especially girls are left out, where especially the poorer sections of society are left out, what other means can we do to level the playing ground? And we do not have the answer yet, but we are trying to pull people in. We are trying to look at good practices in different places to see how we can make this work.

While most governments around the world and the international media are focusing on managing the economic and health crisis posed by COVID-19, prolonged conflicts, wars and the situation of millions of refugees are, in fact, overlooked. Mr. Schneider, how do you assess the situation of children living in these affected areas and what specific challenges are they facing?

Schneider: Let me just name again the risk that UNICEF is seeing right now. We fear that towards the end of this year, every day 6000 additional children might die because of the health and international consequences of the pandemic. We fear that more than 86 million children might be further pushed into a situation of poverty. And as Yasmin was zooming in a bit on the situation of children in very vulnerable settings in India, I think it is really important to see that as in many crisis situations, the most vulnerable children are really those in conflict areas, in refugee settings. Which are, again, millions and millions of children. If we think about these situations between a region like Syria and the neighborhoods, the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh or a number of settings in African conflict areas, all our measures, beginning with the issue of education and digital education up to the very basic health questions, are being jeopardized now.

If we think about our basic hygiene measures to keep the distance, to wash our hands. Just imagine how a young girl or a young boy in eastern Congo or in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh should follow those rules? So, we need really to invest more and to take care of how can we reach these children, how can we reach these families with the important messages. And how can we boost our efforts in a setting that also for UNICEF and our many partners in these settings is a really big challenge? Even in normal times, it is hard to reach so many families under these circumstances, sometimes also with a big risk for those who want to help. That is now particularly difficult and different from the initial setup.

International solidarity and joint efforts are more urgently needed than ever before. But at the same time, some countries are turning their back on global cooperation and are even questioning the effectiveness of the U.N. system. Dr. Haque, how do you interpret this course of action and in your opinion, what needs to be done by the international community to successfully overcome the pandemic with its many challenges?

Haque: For UNICEF, it is been really important that we keep the focus on children and how children are going to be affected unless the world comes together for them. Because when we talk about children, especially the young children, what we do today is going to have an effect years down the line. If we neglect the nutrition of a child today, we are neglecting the human resource and the human capital of the world. With the years of effort and investment that has gone into reducing under-five-mortality, improving learning outcomes on early childhood development, we risk to lose all that if we do not keep the investment going, if we get fragmented.

And I think our Secretary General has said that, you know, the world is facing a global crisis like we have not seen in the 75-year history of the UN. It is killing people, it is spreading human suffering, and it is upending people’s lives across the world. No country, no population group is spared of it. And this is where no country can fight it alone also. And instead of fragmentation, what we need is solidarity. We need continued leadership. We need transparency. We need trust and cooperation more than ever before. Whether it is across borders or within our borders. And for that, I think the UN and the hope on multilateralism has to remain. We have to keep steadfast in it. We cannot give up on it.

What I would also echo is our Executive Director’s words when she said that this is an extraordinary response which needs all hands on deck and it means individuals, corporations, foundations, governments and all organizations. So, it is not just the UN, not just the government or just agencies, but private sector corporations and everyone has a stake in it and we all need to come together for that. So, hope is what we have to keep alive, because we have to show that concerted action makes a difference, that we have to keep the focus on addressing the issues and we have to keep acknowledging the interdependence between people. There is no separate Global South, there is no separate Global North. We are all part of it and we need to stay steadfast in that direction.

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