In a grim assessment of the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on children, the United Nations has said the looming global recession resulting from the outbreak could cause hundreds of thousands of additional child deaths this year, effectively reversing recent gains in reducing infant mortality, and push millions of children into extreme poverty.
It said an estimated 42-66 million children could fall into extreme poverty as a result of the crisis this year, adding to the estimated 386 million children already in extreme poverty in 2019.
"Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims. While they have thankfully been largely spared from the direct health effects of COVID-19 -- at least to date -- the crisis is having a profound effect on their wellbeing," a new 'Policy Brief: The impact of COVID-19 on children' released Thursday by the United Nations said.
On the threats to child survival and health, the policy brief said "economic hardship experienced by families as a result of the global economic downturn could result in a hundreds of thousands of additional
child deaths in 2020, reversing the last 2 to 3 years of progress in reducing infant mortality within a single year."
The brief said that there are three main channels through which children are affected by this crisis -- infection with the virus itself; the immediate socioeconomic impacts of measures to stop transmission of
the virus and end the pandemic; and the potential longer-term effects of delayed implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
The pandemic has also exacerbated the learning crisis as 188 countries have imposed countrywide school closures, affecting more than 1.5 billion children and youth.
"The potential losses that may accrue in learning for today's young generation, and for the development of their human capital, are hard to fathom," it said.
More than two-thirds of countries have introduced a national distance learning platform, but among low-income countries the share is only 30 per cent. Before this crisis, almost one third of the world's young people were already digitally excluded.
According to the Johns Hopkins University data, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases surpassed two million globally and 1,44,000 people have died so far. The US is the worst hit with more than 6,70,000 COVID-19 cases and 33,000 deaths.
It further added that rising malnutririon is expected as 368.5 million children across 143 countries who normally rely on school meals for a reliable source of daily nutrition must now look to other sources.
"The risks to child mental health and well being are also considerable. Refugee and internally displaced children as well as those living in detention and situations of active conflict are especially vulnerable," it said.
Releasing the policy brief, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said while the poorest and most vulnerable members of society are being hardest hit by the pandemic, he is 'especially concerned about the well-being of the world's children.'
Even though children have so far been largely spared from the most severe symptoms of the disease, their lives are being totally upended.
"This is a universal crisis of unprecedented scale. All children, of all ages, and in all countries, are affected. However, some children are destined to bear the greatest costs. Among those who will be badly hit
are children living in slums, refugee and displacement camps, and zones of active conflict. Children with disabilities. Children living in institutions and detention centres," he said.
Urging nations to act now on each of these threats to children, Guterres said leaders must do everything in their power to cushion the impact of the pandemic.
"That started as a public health emergency has snowballed into a formidable test for the global promise to leave no one behind," he said.
The report urged governments and donors to prioritise education for all children and recommended they provide economic assistance, including cash transfers, to low- income families and minimise disruptions to social and healthcare services for children.
"We must also prioritise the most vulnerable -- children in conflict situations; child refugees and displaced persons; children living with disabilities," Guterres said, adding that with the pandemic placing
so many of the world's children in jeopardy, "I reiterate my urgent appeal: let us protect our children and safeguard their well-being."
Governments are also urged to take steps to counter the unintended effects on children by rolling out or expanding social assistance to families, securing food supply chains and local food markets, and prioritising the continuity of services such as schooling, nutrition programmes, and maternal and newborn care.
Standard strategies for physical distancing and lockdowns should be adapted in places such as low-income settings in urban areas, refugee camps and conflict zones.
The report underlined that the UN is working across all settings and stands ready to support countries striving to invest in the world's youngest generation.