Covid19 pandemic and impact on children: an assessment

We are going through unprecedented times. The novel coronavirus (covid19) pandemic has almost the entire world under siege. As of the time of writing this article, more than 3.1 million people have been infected globally with casualty count standing at 2 lac+. Across the globe, countries and economies have come to a standstill with strict lockdown in place.

One of the silver lining in the covid cloud has been the fact that it has been found to be less dangerous for children and more virulent towards older population. However, while that is a small reason for comfort, yet covid-19 pandemic is having a deep, detrimental effect on children all over the world. One of the first effects of the pandemic was governments the world over ordering closure of schools and academic institutions. For a prolonged time period now, nearly 1.3 billion children globally are out of school/classes due to school closures in 180+ countries. (source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics Data). In the event, focus has shifted to online/distance learning platforms that eliminate the need of face to face interactions. Online learning methods are dependant on availability of internet. Unfortunately, despite access to internet being considered as a basic human right enabler, latest UN estimates reveal that approximately 46% of the world’s population does not have access to internet. While this is more acute in developing economies, the digital gap exists even in developed first world countries. The human rights group Human Rights Watch estimates that 1 out of 5 school aged children in the USA do not have access to high speed internet at home. Absence of access to the internet naturally thus deprives a signficant proportion of children world over from e-learning facilities.

Moreover, till date, question marks remain on the relative effectiveness of e-learning methodologies vis-a-vis classroom teaching. A study conducted by researchers from the American Institute for Research and University of Chicago Consortium on Schools Research randomly allocated students who had failed second semester Algebra I to either F-2-F or online credit recovery courses over the summer. It was observed that students’ credit recovery and algebra test scores were lower among those students who attended online coaching. These students also rated their classes more difficult to understand as compared to their counterparts who attended classroom sessions. Another study conducted by June Ahn of New York University and Andrew McEachin of Rand Corporation also elicited similar results. The results are not really surprising – being in person with teacher and other students creates social/peer pressure that works as a motivator. While some students perform as well or even better on e-learning, in general it has been observed that students who struggle in classroom setting, tend to fall even further behind on virtual teaching platforms.

Moreover, e-learning methods also come with their fair share of other problems. While they offer the advantage of flexibility of time and place, they can also create a sense of isolation after a while. For children used to attending classes with friends, this can even lead to depression. Further, prolonged use of PC could lead to problems with eye sight, back pain etc. In fact one potential long term impact of using e-learning apps could be development of mobile addiction among children. Given the lockdown conditions prevalent in so many countries, virtual or e-learning is the only option available to ensure education process doesn’t come to a standstill. However, more time it continues, myriad adverse effects on children are likely to build up.

The other big concern is prolonged lockdown leading to rise in domestic violence. UN has already sounded off the alarm on this after calls to domesic abuse helpline in several countries doubled within days of lockdown coming into effect. Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa witness 65% women subjected to partner violence (UN estimates) – with home confinement such numbers are likely to go up. Moreover, with covid19 crisis having a devastating impact on the global ecomomy (it has been termed as potentially even more severe than the Great Depression of the 1930s), stress of job loss, income loss etc. can only further accentuate incidents of domestic violence. This comes as further bad news for children in such households. Moreover, loss of job/income could lead to children in low economic groups dropping out of school and getting employed in earning capacity by their parents.

UNICEF report of Nov’17 revealed the below starting nos:

  • 3 in 4 children aged 2 – 4 years experience violent discipline at the hands of their caregivers. 3 in 5 are punished by severe physical means
  • Worldwide, 1 in 4 children under age 5 live with a mother who is a victim of intimate partner violence
  • Worldwide, 1 in 3 children between ages 13 and 15 face regular bullying

In times of a crisis such as the current prevalent situation, such nos. can go up even higher. Moreover, access to facilities like helpline, counselling etc are also likely to be compromised.

Besides, we live in a world where half of all child deaths below 5 are attributed to malnutritition. UN stats reveal thaty that 1 in 5 or 144 million children below 5 years globally suffering from malnutritition and 386 million children living in poverty worldwide in 2019. It is feared that the financial impact of the covid crisis could lead to this number increasing by 42-66 million in 2020 (UN estimates). Thus the cascading effect of covid19 could lead to an alarming increase in child ill health/deaths this year after positive trends on this metric in the last 3 years.

In conclusion, it may be said that while health impact of covid19 has been fortunately lesser among children, the same cannot be said when considered from other angles including impact on education, health & well being and physical and mental safety.

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