Children need urgent help to overcome Covid impacts

November 4, 2021 | 05:13 pm PT
Rana Flowers UNICEF representative in Vietnam
Covid-19 has had a severe impact on children in Vietnam, and they are in dire need of support to avoid long-term consequences.

The pandemic has created a socioeconomic crisis that dramatically influences every aspect of children's lives.

More families now live in poverty, more families are unable to put nutritious food on the table for their children.

In touching every aspect of a child’s life, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted children. For example, in education, where it should be noted that when schools moved to online teaching, millions of children living in remote and disadvantaged areas had neither the devices nor the wifi, nor the skills to access it efficiently. A "digital divide" in the country was clearly exposed, which must now be addressed effectively.

For the students living in those regions, it is the case that their teachers also do not have devices, they do not use IT or digital tools regularly, while for children in urban areas, they are often more fortunate. The disparity in access means that there is a large of group of children, who have been left further behind, who will need additional support to catch up the missed learning. This is deeply concerning.

For me personally, and for the team at UNICEF, we have committed to addressing this "digital divide" going forward. The predictions in many countries suggest that it could take up to three years for children who have missed this period of learning to catch up with their peers.

A student is in an online class in District 7, HCMC late September 2021. Photo courtesy of his parents.

A student is in an online class in District 7, HCMC, September 2021. Photo courtesy of his parents

A second area for ongoing attention is the physical health of all children. Many children missed essential health checks or vaccination appointments, and it is crucial that these are caught up as the country opens. I worry in particular about the health of children who faced long periods of lockdown, such as in HCMC, where they were held indoors, unable to exercise, to play creatively in the outdoors.

While many parents did their best to keep children active at home, by playing games with them, reading books, playing music, not all children benefited, and most did not benefit sufficiently. We see that children have become less active, doing less exercise, not being as creative, not learning teamwork or even communicating as happily as they used to. Just missing the sunlight and Vitamin D can have a negative impact on their health, physical and mental.

And there is such a strong connection between physical and mental health when it comes to children's development. If they play games and interact with friends in the open air, they communicate and laugh more, they develop skills essential to their future employment.

There is an expression: "cabin fever," which describes the emotional turmoil and distress that results from being lockdown in a small space with others. As the lockdown extends, people increasingly become frustrated, grumpy and even angry with those around them, and that impacts everyone’s mental health. I suspect that there was a lot of "cabin fever" for many families. The good news is that the solution is now available, now that our cities can open, it is wonderful to see families just getting out, walking and getting fresh air.

But there are even more serious challenges to children’s and women’s mental and physical health, the incidence of gender-based violence, of domestic violence and of child abuse has increased considerably over the pandemic period. The pandemic exposed a problem that existed well before the outbreak, that was worsened as a result of the stresses and pressures of the lockdowns and lost livelihoods, and that can have lifelong consequences unless as a society we have zero tolerance of such violence, we hold perpetrators of violence accountable, and unless society acts immediately to protect and care for the victims, for their physical and mental health.

UNICEF is very worried that the pandemic has eroded the gains Vietnam had made over the last two decades in poverty alleviation, in access to education, in addressing growing stunting and malnutrition concerns, in building strong resilient children who can drive the economic growth of this country in the future. There is a growing divide between the haves and have-nots; with so many slipping into poverty, more migrant workers who have lost their livelihoods, there are many children today who risk missing the essential "development" windows that secures them the cognitive and physical development milestrones that are so essential to optimal growth.

But perhaps the most heart-wrenching consequence of Covid in Vietnam is the reality that many children have lost one or both parents. This is tragic at all levels. There are over 2,000 children who have suffered this terrible trauma and who need social assistance, care and ongoing support to remain with their extended families, to stay connected to their communities, to the schools and friends they know.

From the evidence at hand, I believe the pandemic's impact on children is extremely severe. The kids are exhausted with it all. How do I feel personally? I would say the challenges have been incredibly difficult, and the growing disparities that have resulted from the pandemic really upset me and challenge us all to think how we can address them in a sustainable way.

So what action is needed to address the challenges?

There is an opportunity NOW to not just get everything open again and functioning but to have a really strategic vision for how Vietnam can build back better, not just getting services running again, like education, but really fixing the areas that have not functioned well, the areas where we have seen regression.

I believe it is absolutely the moment for government to make a significant injection of financial and human resources to get social assistance to families, to address the digital divide decisively, to drive clean water and sanitation for all, to really protect women and children in their homes and communities, to strengthen the health system so it is even more resilient to future shocks. And yes, there is a role to play by the private sector, by charity organizations, but driving economic growth in the future depends in my view on government investment, government prioritization and vision.

Examples of action needed touch every social sector. For example providing children with devices and wifi is a priority, which will allow them to soon catch up with online lessons. Vietnam should provide free wifi to students across the country as other countries in this region already have. Quality education of the future will be what we call a blended approach, face to face learning plus digital on-line learning. The digital-transformed Vietnam will be underpinned by a digitally savvy and clever children and youth, this is worth a government investment to make this happen more effectively.

Another example of an immediate priority for government action comes from the experience gained with every kind of crisis or disaster. The government needs to have a shock responsive social assistance system that responds quickly, with a sufficient cash transfer to the most affected families. With that support, families have shown us they buy food, they pay rent, they keep their children in school, and they keep their children healthy.

This is essential if a country wants to offset the lifelong losses to children's development. It does entail an investment, it does mean a simplification and revamping of the current approach is needed, and there is a return on that investment in keeping families functioning, reducing the stress experienced, in addressing fundamental needs of children until the family can get back on their feet. There is a return on the investment in dignity, in respecting and protecting families from the worst consequences of disasters.

UNICEF advocates for an even easier approach, which is undertaken in many countries, including in many Scandinavia countries, which is to introduce a "child benefit". A monthly payment is made to families based on the number of registered children, the benefit is to help those families meet the development needs of each child.

With regard to children who have lost one or both parents, again there is a need for government support, that assures social assistance and support to extended family or community based solutions that allow for not just the physical needs but also the emotional and the psycho-social needs to be addressed. No child, ever, in my view should be placed in an institution or a home. It is NOT the safest space for children, it will never provide the love and support that the child needs. When they are dependent on private, generous souls to fund such places, the funding is sporadic, the conditions in the facilities can be dire. Keeping children with family, with their community is the better solution.

To take a broader view, factoring in the violence against women and children, there is an urgent need to have social workers who can identify kids at risk, intervene with the police to stop violence, abuse, child labor, and trafficking; ensure there are trained professionals who can help address the trauma the abuse has caused.

Mental health, like physical health, needs nurturing. Even more so today because of the pandemic, there is a need for psychosocial support in schools to focus on positive mental health of the students. Working with children who have experiences trauma or abuse, they also support the many children who today report feeling isolated and alone, with overwhelming grief or loss, a fear about missed opportunities, about fitting back in, about their future. There is evidence that children returning to schools have forgotten some of their social skills, they have trouble reconnecting with friends, communicating effectively. As children go back to schools in many countries, resources are being invested to support teacher training, to not just keep children physically well, but to invest in their mental health as well.

At home, I know parents appreciate how dramatically their kids have been impacted while they see increased behaviour problems, challenges to get their children to do the right thing. Our encouragement to parents and to teachers is reduce the focus on academic achievement. Bring the pressure down, the children need us to see that they have had enough. Help them reconnect, to identify positive people they can spend time with, help them find ways that they can make a valuable contribution to their community, activities that build their confidence. This fuels self-worth, and we need to support strong self esteem and resilience in today’s generation of adolescents in particular.

For its part, UNICEF will continue providing support and working closely with various governmental agencies in Vietnam to address the challenges as they arise. While I do appreciate strong government leadership, vision and investment, building back better requires a commitment from each of us to invest our time and our skills to ensuring that no child is left behind as a result of the pandemic.

*Rana Flowers is UNICEF representative to Vietnam.

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