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Secondary effects of COVID-19 on children in all countries will be unprecedented, experts warn

Whatever the state of the pandemic in their own countries, high-income countries must give more attention to international action
30 Apr 2020

Children are attending classes on television, together with their teacher, in the village of Morovine, in the North of Côte d'Ivoire.

Florence 4 May 2020 - In a new Innocenti Discussion Paper, COVID-19 and children in the North and in the South, Giovanni Andrea Cornia, Richard Jolly and Frances Stewart, authors of the milestone 1987 UNICEF report Adjustment with a Human Face, articulate important  plausible theories about the direct and indirect impacts on children in both high- and low-income countries. They warn that regardless of the state of the pandemic at home, developed countries must give more attention to international action.

“As all countries – rich and poor – struggle to cope with the immediate threats of the pandemic, we decided to write this short paper to highlight the urgency of a global pandemic response with a ‘human face’,” said Professor Cornia. “We hope this will help nations to act faster to avoid the worst immediate direct impact for children and, especially, the long-term effects of measures introduced to fight the COVID19-induced recessions”.

"We decided to write this short paper to highlight the urgency of a global pandemic response with a ‘human face.’" - Professor Giovanni Andrea Cornia

If there is a return to austerity, to ‘balance the books’, the consequences can be disastrous for poorer people in richer countries and for economic opportunities in poorer countries. It is critically important – they say – that poorer countries are not forced to adopt expenditure cutting programmes but are able to expand their support for social transfers and for their health systems.

Evidence to date suggests that the direct effects of COVID-19 on children in both the ‘North’ and ‘South’ are small and short-lived in comparison to those on the elderly population. In the current outbreak, as in other mortality crises, direct risks vary widely from country to country, depending on age structure of the population, living arrangements, latitude and climate, environmental pollution, high territorial mobility, the national health systems.

On the contrary, the indirect, or secondary effects on children in both developed and developing countries will be considerable. The authors argue that the effects of this pandemic are likely to be greater than those in the financial crisis of 2007–2009 and comparable to the recession and debt crisis of the 1980s. Action for children on this front cannot be delayed. 

"Children are likely to be the most serious victims, in the near term as well as the medium and longer run, in poorer countries, but perhaps also the poorest children in richer ones." - Sir Richard Jolly

Heavy costs for children can only be avoided with systematic and concerted efforts by governments to provide extensive social support for the poor and for the health and education systems. On the other hand, efforts by the international community are necessary to provide financial resources and other support to compensate for the negative impact of the recession which is now practically inevitable.

“The fact that the direct effects of COVID-19 on children seem to be small is leading many to think that children will be little affected,” Sir Richard Jolly said. “Looking at the indirect effects, this paper shows that children are likely to be the most serious victims, in the near term as well as the medium and longer run, in poorer countries but perhaps also the poorest children in richer ones.”

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Cornia, Jolly and Stewart discuss some of the main measures adopted globally to face the outbreak and warn about the fact that the same measures applied in high-income countries can lead to different results in low-income countries.

“Children in poor countries will suffer above all from the economic effects of the pandemic,” Professor Frances Stewart said, “in particular from the consequences of the huge recession in developed countries following their ‘lockdown’ measures, worsening their markets, and reducing employment,  household earnings, and government revenue in poor countries. I believe,” she concluded, “the negative shock will dwarf that of the financial crisis of 2007-8 and may be greater than the impact of the debt crisis of the 1980s.”

In richer countries the repercussions of lockdown will have many knock-on effects on children through an increase in unemployment and prices; long term school closures; and reduced opportunities for regular or emergency health services, especially for poorer families who do not receive or cannot access state support.

Iraqi children take their lessons remotely in Baghdad  amidst a lockdown to fight the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19.

The consequences of lockdown in the ‘South’ on health and on economy might be worse than the epidemic itself and result in huge losses in employment and earnings, easily leading to famine. Moreover, a contraction of economic activity in urban areas can reverse rural-to-urban migration and entail huge transitional costs, in addition to the risk of spreading the virus to less infected rural areas. Overall, lockdown measure makes much less sense in towns and cities where many poor people live in low-income ‘informal sector areas’ and if health capacity to treat the most serious cases is low or non-existent in any case.

Children will also suffer if parents or grandparents become sick and are unable to care for them. In developing countries, these impacts may be larger if parents, adult relatives or neighbours are sick or cannot work or earn the incomes needed to provide food or other necessities, or if they die.

The long-term consequences on children in low-income countries could be serious but are still unforeseeable. Much depends on how richer countries will deal with the debt and other financial issues of the poorer countries, after the pandemic has passed.


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UNICEF Innocenti response to COVID-19

UNICEF Innocenti is mobilizing a rapid research response in line with UNICEF’s global response to the COVID-19 crisis. Our initiatives we’ve begun will provide the broad range of evidence needed to inform our work to scale up rapid assessment, develop urgent mitigating strategies in programming and advocacy, and preparation of interventions to respond to the medium and longer-term consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. The research projects cover a rapid review of evidence, education analysis, and social and economic policies. Know more about what we do at  COVID-19 and Children

The Office of Research – Innocenti is UNICEF’s dedicated research centre. It undertakes research on emerging or current issues to inform the strategic directions, policies and programmes of UNICEF and its partners, shape global debates on child rights and development, and inform the global research and policy agenda for all children, and particularly for the most vulnerable.Please visit: www.unicef-irc.org @UNICEFInnocenti

For more information, please contact:

Dale Rutstein, drutstein@unicef.org 

Patrizia Faustini, pfaustini@unicef.org 

Kathleen Sullivan, kcsullivan@unicef.org