As the world navigates the battle against the pandemic of COVID-19, we are witnessing social distancing and confinement measures of unparalleled magnitude. In such times of isolation, we must bring our attention to one of the most vulnerable sections of society that have their well being at risk – our children.
First, and the most apparent effect of the lockdown has been on the physical safety of children, made apparent by a 50% surge in the SOS calls to the Childline India helpline. Of the 3.07 lakh calls on the helpline between March 20-31, over 30% pertained to child abuse. There has also been a significant rise in domestic violence cases against women, with the total complaints rising from 116 to 257 between the first and last week of March. The lockdown has cut off avenues for women and children to escape violence and hostility at home. Rising tensions regarding health and finances have produced an unfavourable climate for children to grow in, translating into distress.
Second, economic vulnerabilities, in the form of loss of livelihood for families, create the perfect breeding ground for traffickers to exploit families through lucrative opportunities- often witnessed after natural disasters, as well. This puts children at an even higher risk because families that are unable to provide for them might be coerced into leaving them in shelter homes or making them resort to child labour. In order to curb the rise in incidence of trafficking, it is imperative for shelter home authorities and law enforcement officials to be more vigilant.
A third area of concern pertains to a child’s mental health. The school shutdowns have not only disrupted a child’s routine life but have also indefinitely halted classroom education for growing minds. While several private schools have taken to online classes, we must not ignore the gap in access to technology that exists in India, now exacerbating the access to quality education for all. Additionally, there is a complete break down of peer-to-peer interactions, extra-curriculars, or simple activities like playing with their friends- quintessential to a child’s wellbeing. With the end nowhere in sight, we are likely to witness a detrimental impact on not only learning outcomes, but also the discipline and mental conditioning that is fostered in a regular school-day routine.
We must also remember that children cannot be clubbed into one homogenous group. Different needs and interests require different actions and responses. All of the above-cited concerns are exponentially magnified amongst children with special needs. While children with disabilities might require special medications, those suffering from mental health problems might be more harshly impacted because of the loneliness emanating as a result of the lockdown, and will thus require stronger psychological support. Malnourished children will have special, higher ration needs, while children of migrant workers and children living in shelter homes might be easily overlooked in the relief measures announced by governments. Therefore, instead of adopting a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy for children’s wellbeing, the efforts must be holistically targeted towards varying needs of different children.
The importance of a safe and healthy home environment cannot be overstated enough in the well-being of children. While government and health care workers are working to provide ration, immunization and health services, media can be harnessed as the indispensable tool in this time, to deliver other forms of support to people. Governments at all levels can partner with academics, private sector and civil society organisations to disseminate crucial counselling, educational, and nutritional content – through social media and traditional communication channels like radio, television, and print media for their wide reach in rural areas.
Similarly, while a national strategy to fight COVID-19 is essential, local governments must align their efforts to ensure implementation on ground. Whether it is nutritional support or protection services, it rests upon each of the 720 district administrations to guarantee last mile delivery. Only through effective deployment of Anganwadi workers and ASHA workers can it be ensured that the benefits envisaged are actually reaching every family and child, while catering to children with special needs.
Recognising the vulnerabilities of children, Kaliabor is attempting to address the needs of children through this bottom up approach. In order to address the needs of malnourished children living in the tea-garden areas, efforts have been made to engage with civil society organisations (CSOs) in ensuring that their dietary requirements are being met.
Regardless of the decisions taken with respect to the lockdown, whether it is an extension or a staggered reopening, the primary concern must be the people and their well-being. A people centric approach must thus ensure that this support is not taken for granted. Our fight against COVID-19 will only be successful if we can ensure that our young, growing population is protected from the effects of the lockdown.