One of the small mercies of the coronavirus is that the risk of serious illness in children has so far been relatively small. But that does not mean that the toll has not been devastating.
Even with the promise of a vaccine on the horizon, a new report by UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, warned that “the future of an entire generation is at risk,” with the threat to children “increasing, not decreasing” as the world deals with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
The report, based on surveys from 140 countries, paints an alarming picture of a generation facing “a trifecta of threats: direct consequences of the disease itself, interruption in essential services and increasing poverty and inequality.”
If the interruption to basic services including vaccinations and health care does not improve, UNICEF said that as many as two million children could die in the next 12 months and there could be an additional 200,000 stillbirths.
The report also found that school closures did little to slow the spread of the virus while causing long-term harm. While higher education institutions have played a role in community transmission, studies cited in the report showed “no consistent association between school reopening status and COVID-19 infection rates.”
“Unless the global community urgently changes priorities, the potential of this generation of young people may well be lost,” UNICEF warned.
At the peak of the first wave of pandemic, 90 percent of students around the world — 1.5 billion children — saw classroom learning disrupted. And some 463 million children were not able to access remote learning.
“The longer schools are closed, the more children suffer from extensive learning losses with long term negative impacts, including future income and health,” the report found.
As of November, according to the study, nearly 600 million students are still affected by school closures, with more governments considering renewed closures as the virus surges, the report found.
New York City is closing its entire public school system starting Thursday, and other cities are considering similar closures, but UNICEF found that such measures have not proven effective in slowing the spread of the virus.
“Children and schools are not the main drivers of the epidemic across countries,” the report found. “Evidence shows that the net benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the costs of closing them. Data from 191 countries show no consistent association between school reopening status and COVID-19 infection rates.”