Sat | Sep 19, 2020

Aldrie Henry-Lee | COVID-19, children’s rights and the UN 2030 Agenda

Published:Saturday | May 9, 2020 | 12:12 AMAldrie Henry-Lee/Guest Columnist

As we celebrate Child Month, we reflect that the COVID-19 pandemic will retard progress in the fulfilment of the UN 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN 2030 Agenda is a globally shared commitment to eradicate poverty and achieve the SDGs by 2030, ensuring that no one is left behind. It will also be increasingly difficult to adhere to the rights mandated by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as governments and citizens try to cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

This pandemic will exacerbate existing global, regional, and national inequalities and have devastating impacts on children. COVID-19 has also underscored the need to focus on SDG 10, which calls for a reduction in societal inequalities. It is becoming increasingly evident that several groups of children will be ‘left behind’ and are more at risk of having their rights violated during this pandemic.

The health imperatives of washing hands frequently with soap, wearing masks, and sanitising are luxuries that hundreds of children do not enjoy. When there is no water to cook, frequent handwashing is discouraged. Buying soap, sanitisers, and masks will not be prioritised over purchasing food and other basic necessities.

Stay-at-home and curfew orders can be problematic. In densely populated homes, social distancing is impossible, and nearby streets and yards become welcome escapes from cramped living quarters. Curfews and restricted movement pose high levels of physical and mental discomfort.

School closures particularly affect the economically disadvantaged. Wealthier children have better access to resources, opportunities, and support outside of school. Some children have no devices or Internet access to retrieve their course material. For some, there is no quiet place to study, attend classes remotely, review notes, or print and complete homework. Children from rural, poorer, and underprivileged families are less likely to have sustained and reliable access to the Internet and online educational platforms.

Not all children will benefit from remote teaching. Children who are more technologically savvy will adapt more easily than others. Additionally, some children learn more effectively from face-to-face interaction than with a remote teacher. The performance of children in upcoming examinations may reflect who had better access to communication media.

For many children, home is not a safe place, and increased cases of psychological, sexual, and physical abuse and child labour are expected. Girls are more at risk. The under-reporting of cases will take place as teachers and guidance counsellors are best positioned to identify and help abused children. Additionally, some homes have little privacy to call and report abuse.

The new pandemic-directed landscape has also exposed the inadequate skill set of some teachers. Many have never participated in an online forum, and students whose teachers are more comfortable with the new technologies will benefit more from this remote teaching. Remote teaching also presents increased costs (e.g., electricity and data bills) to all teachers.

More at risk

Some groups are more at risk. Children with sight impairment may not have the required software to access the educational material. Those with intellectual disabilities may become disillusioned and frustrated. Street children may not be able to comply with health imperatives. Children waiting for familial care may be disappointed as foster-care programmes may be halted due to foster parents’ reluctance to expose their households to new and potentially risky family members.

COVID-19 has caused widespread job losses and income insecurity. Several children will go to bed hungry and without their basic needs. For those on the School Feeding Programme, the only meal of the day that they received from school is no longer available. Other children will remain home alone as their parents continue working outside the home.

Staying at home can have negative effects on health. Increased obesity in children and adults may result. Obesity increases susceptibility to chronic illnesses. Play is also curtailed during a pandemic. With no play in the schoolyard, there is decreased exercise for children.

For parents, lockdowns with their children 24/7 can prove very stressful and burdensome. Social distancing, lockdowns, and school closures pose additional pressures on working parents who have now become teachers and counsellors. Many cannot manage the stress of work and supervision of children’s education. The more stressed the parents become, the increased risk of violence against their children.

Children whose parents or relatives have been infected with COVID-19 may be exposed to discrimination and stigma. The stress of a sick parent or family member, especially the breadwinner, can impact negatively on several aspects of their lives. Stigma and discrimination associated with COVID-19 may have led to the death of a young mother recently in Jamaica.

However, all is not lost. There have been some positive impacts from the pandemic. For some children, this is an opportunity for them to bond with their families. Some parents are reassessing work-family priorities and beginning to readjust in favour of the latter. The Government of Jamaica has also introduced the CARE programmes, which will benefit disadvantaged children. The collective response has been tremendous from the public and private sectors, and many disadvantaged children have been beneficiaries. Altruism is on the increase, and many persons have shown more goodwill to their family, neighbours, and friends. Some communities have become more cohesive and introduced healthy practices to reduce the risk of infection.

There are several lessons to be learnt from this pandemic. If we want to achieve the SDGs set out by the UN 2030 Agenda, children’s rights have to be prioritised globally, regionally, and nationally. The pandemic has again highlighted the importance of investing in the health, education, and social protection of children before, during, and after a pandemic. Any disaster-management plan must place child welfare as central to its implementation. Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child advocates that we consider the best interests of the children in all our policies and programmes. How we treat our children now, during this pandemic, will determine the kind of societies we will have for generations to come.

Aldrie Henry-Lee is professor and university director, Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES), The University of the West Indies, Mona. Email feedback to aldrie.henrylee@uwimona.edu.jm.