At the end of last year, UNICEF released a new report, Preventing A Lost Decade: Urgent action to reverse the devastating impact of COVID- 19 on children and young people. While it is easy for reports released in December to get lost in the end of the year rush, this report needs everyone’s attention. UNICEF called COVID-19 the greatest challenge to children in its 75-year history; and the situation is exacerbated by conflict, disaster, and climate change.
The facts tell a sobering story about the impact of the pandemic on children (UNICEF 2021):
- In less than two years, 100 million more children have fallen into poverty, a 10 percent, increase since 2019
- In 2020, over 23 million children missed out on essential vaccines
- 50 million children suffer from wasting, the most life-threatening form of malnutrition, and this could increase by 9 million by 2022
- At its peak in March 2020, 1.6 billion children were facing school closure
Behind every one of these numbers are real stories: young children were left behind as preschool closed and food lines grew. School age children, particularly those with the most to gain, had limited access to remote learning. Teens suffered from social isolation and lack of mental health supports, and growing demands for early marriage. Parents tried their best to keep it all going; yet too often without the financial and social resources they needed. And the unpredictability of everyday life brought stress that seemed almost impossible to bear.
Fortunately, many communities around the world rallied: volunteers delivered food, distributed protective equipment and set up new hygiene facilities, and teachers worked to connect children with resources at home. We were all inspired by stories of people working for change– from health care workers to childcare providers, from youth to seniors.
Yet the challenges facing children were alarming even before Covid became a household word. Approximately 1 billion children- nearly half of the world’s children- live in countries that are at an “extremely high risk” from the impacts of climate change (UNICEF, 2021); and more and more children are forcible displaced, all too often from conflict that could have been and should have been avoided.
Clearly, those in positions of power need to make investing in children, families, and communities a priority this year and in the years ahead. This is particularly true for U.S Foreign Assistance. Building on earlier work, in June of 2019 the U.S. launched Advancing Protection and Care for Children in Adversity: A U.S. Government Strategy for International Assistance (2019-23). This important document outlines a strategy for investing in the world’s most vulnerable children. In 2020 Congress passed the Global Child Thrive Act providing additional direction for U.S. Government to invest in early childhood development. These are both important steps; now we all have to assure that they receive the attention and resources that this movement deserves.
The UNICEF report outlines an urgent agenda for action for children, including recommendations to invest in social protection, health, and education as well as building resilience to better prevent, respond to and protect children. Government, business and civil society and the public need to work together. But as in any crises, each individual action makes a difference. We can’t wait for someone else to step forward with a solution. Each of us must ask: What can I do to help a neighbor, work in my community, build awareness, provide another voice, help empower others? What else can we do to integrate these issues into every field of study: from health to education, from diplomacy to economic development, from environmental studies to urban planning and design?
In their powerful new book, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams with Gail Hudson, address an important question-How do we stay hopeful when everything seems hopeless? What is so uplifting about this story is that it draws a clear link between hope and action. It seems to be telling us that, while important, it is not the resilience of nature or the human intellect alone that matter, but also our spirit and belief in the possibilities and the power to take action. I can’t think of a better year to start.
Joan Lombardi Ph.D. is an international expert on early childhood development and a Senior Fellow at the Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues, Georgetown University.
Advancing Protection and Care for Children in Adversity: A U.S. Government Strategy for International Assistance (2019-2023) https://www.childreninadversity.gov.
Goodall, Jane and Abrams, Douglas with Gail Hudson (2021) The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times. New York: Celadon Books.
Global Thrive Act of 2020 https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/4864.
UNICEF (2021) Preventing A Lost Decade: Urgent action to reverse the devastating impact of COVID-19 on children and young people, https://www.unicef.org/media/112891/file/UNICEF 75 report.pdf.