COVID-19 has changed the way we have been taking all that is precious to us for granted. It has not only made the world pause, reflect and rearrange priorities in life, but has made many of us aware of our privileges and shown us a mirror to how we react to human sufferings as a society.
While we come to terms with the COVID-induced changes one cannot comprehend the damage that the pandemic will inflict on children both directly and indirectly.
While decoding this mysterious peculiarity of the virus, what has escaped our attention is the long-term damage and the cascading effect of COVID-19 is likely to cause in children — through inadequate health services, broken medical supplies, interrupted access to nutritious food and income loss in families, lack of access to school and education, having protection net at the societal level.
The long-term impact of the pandemic on economic and social systems remains invisible, but experts have begun to caution with worrying forecasts. More than a third (36 per cent) of the state’s children under-five years are stunted and a third (30 per cent) is wasted, reckons the National Family Health Survey-4 Report (2015-16).
These rates are significantly higher compared to the average prevalence in developing countries, which stand at 25 per cent for stunting and 8.9 per cent for wasting. Furthermore, even the National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) data shows that in the decade up to 2015, children suffering from severe acute malnutrition grew to 7.5 per cent from 6.4 per cent.
Separately, Observer Research Foundation reports that with 15 per cent of the total population in the “hungry” bracket, India is one of the most undernourished regions in the world and children in Assam are not out of this ambit.
Services of our front-line workers, the ASHAs and Anganwadi workers had to be diverted for COVID-19 surveillance activities. Considering that they have been the lifeline of the government’s nutrition programmes, this is bound to result in the neglect of children and their nutrition status. Thus pushing the children in tea gardens and other vulnerable groups to poverty and penury.
The highly infectious nature of the virus has prompted decisions that have caused serious economic distress, particularly to those dependent on daily wages to survive. Children belonging to such poor households face the highest vulnerability in terms of education, protection and brain development at crucial stages of their life.
With diminishing livelihood options and physical schooling almost beyond question have pushed development initiatives that were undertaken by the state government, to a stand-still, thereby shifting back the needle of development to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
Even as lockdown regulations ease and essential healthcare including antenatal care services slowly start resuming, the pandemic has already led to severe adverse consequences for mothers and children, particularly those facing socio-economic disadvantages.
Recording a third (30%), s per NFHS-4, 2015-16; of the state’s teenagers getting married before legal age of marriage, the present scenario might be graver for adolescent girls across the state.
The recently released National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB-2019) shows that out of 2067 children who were reported to be missing, 1270 were girls below the age of 18; while 6 out of every 10 girls trafficked are below the age of 18 years.
According to a report published in Deccan Herald in July 2020, the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights Assam state had witnessed almost 200 cases related to violence against children, including 100 with sexual abuse of children during lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020.
The Commission is working on a war footing to take action against every reported case in close coordination with various departments and civil society organisations, corporate bodies including the planters.
Setting up “Sishu Mitra Resource Centre” by the state government, to provide technical assistance to investigating officers to handle all child-related cases efficiently and within the timelines along with the month-long campaign on Cyber Security by Assam Police to raise awareness about cyber-security especially among children and youth are welcome steps amid pandemic.
Considerably aggravating the vulnerabilities the multiple waves of floods threatened to overwhelm the state as children had to shift to relief camps for indefinite periods with their families.
Increased risks to survive, thrive and be protected made children disproportionately vulnerable to the intergenerational poverty cycles and resorting to negative coping mechanisms like dropping out of school to being trafficked, to being forced to get married at an early age or to get employed as a child labourer.
The battle ahead to protect a generation is full of grave challenges. As we are in the 31st year of our celebration of UN-Child Rights Convention week properly planned, sustainable, inclusive policies and relief measures need to be implemented with an efficient, skilled and motivated and coordinated workforce on the ground with seamless coordination among state government and various stakeholders.
So that post-pandemic, we should not have to live with this one regret — that the preventable damage surpassed the damage that was unpreventable for generations to come!
Debadrta Sengupta is a manager- advocacy (East), Save the Children and Soumi Guha Halder is manager- campaigns and communication (East), Save the Children.