PROTECTING A GENERATION FROM COVID-19: AN AGENDA FOR ACTION FROM SAVE THE CHILDREN
As we witness the novel coronavirus spread across Canada and from one country to the next, it is clear that COVID-19 knows no borders. This pandemic is a global threat and our shared humanity demands a global response.
Right here in Canada, Indigenous youth tell us they are worried about what will happen if COVID-19 reaches their remote community – where many live in crowded houses, and there’s a lack of adequate health services. Our teams on the front line in some of the poorest and war-stricken countries like Yemen, Gaza and Syria, as reported in the Globe and Mail this week, are warning more than 15 million children and their families have access to fewer than 1,700 ventilators and beds. And in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, we are preparing to contain the spread in a context where there isn’t even enough clean water to drink or cook with, let alone wash hands for 20 seconds.
If the world acts decisively to flatten the curve, it is estimated that there will be at least 800,000 deaths in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia alone. Delay in suppressing coronavirus will add three million to that figure, while also taking into account the potential social and economic impacts, which could greatly increase these numbers. With more than 1.5 billion children and youth worldwide now having their education disrupted by school closures, the long-term impacts of children being out of school will extend beyond learning objectives, and hit the most vulnerable the hardest.
However, we can get through this if we act with courage, resolve and expertise.
Save the Children is taking immediate action to strengthen and adapt our lifesaving health and hygiene programs to reduce the spread and impact of COVID-19. And as a leader in education response during emergencies, we are confident in our ability to alleviate the impact, and help children to continue to learn throughout this challenging time.
It is obvious that failure to contain the spread of the virus will have a detrimental affect on the lives of millions of children and their families in Canada and across the world. For over 100 years, our mission to advance children’s basic rights to survival, education and protection has seen incredible positive change for children. Now this global pandemic risks undermining the tremendous global effort to get children into school, to protect children in war, and to ensure they get the nutrition they need to survive and thrive. With COVID-19 now spreading into some of the world’s poorest countries, we could very well witness a reversal of this progress and violation of children’s rights on a global scale. But, if we all take action, millions of lives will be spared, and children will benefit for years to come.
As Save the Children teams around the world gear up and do our part to fight COVID-19, we are able to draw on the lessons learned from our leadership in past health crises responses such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014. We’re speaking with our teams on the ground to understand the risks and challenges, and engaging with global partners to work through a coordinated plan of action.
To avert global catastrophe, coordinated action at the community, national and global level is paramount. Every country is best protected by protecting people everywhere.
Canada has shown strong leadership in recent days – from efforts to meet the needs of those most vulnerable in Canada, to providing aid to reduce the spread worldwide. This must continue, and be coordinated through global forums like the G20.
As the Canadian government considers next steps in responding to this pandemic both at home and overseas, Canada must come together with international community at-large in global solidarity to deliver the following actions to protect a generation of children’s rights:
1 DISEASE CONTAINMENT AND MITIGATION.
Timing is everything. Early and decisive action to strengthen health systems so that people can be tested, isolated, treated and their contacts traced is critical. We now need a single coordinated global plan of action to support national governments and communities. The World Health Organization, the World Bank and other UN agencies should act as one behind a single plan for prevention and containment, including coordination of testing, protective equipment and financing for public health systems, especially community health workers, mental health support and primary health care.
At least $8 billion in international funding is urgently needed for the immediate public health response.[i] Barriers such as gender discrimination that keep women and girls from accessing health services must be overcome – and in this regard, there is an opportunity for Canada to demonstrate leadership through a response that recognizes the intersection between age and gender, including through the framework of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, in particular global health and nutrition for women and girls. Support for refugees and those in humanitarian settings and conflict-affected countries must be boosted dramatically to slow the pace of spread. And every effort must be made to avert even more deaths by ensuring continued provision of essential health and nutrition services vital to maternal and child survival, including sexual and reproductive health.
2. GLOBAL FINANCING.
The world’s poorest countries do not have the fiscal capacity either to make the health system investments that are needed, or to protect the most vulnerable citizens – including children – from the social and economic impacts that come with coronavirus. Sub-Saharan Africa alone will need $100 billion in economic stimulus.[ii]
This is a time for the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to use their balance sheets on behalf of the poorest countries, and to protect the most vulnerable – and their major shareholders should support radical action. Priorities include protecting the most vulnerable children through cash transfers and public spending on health, education and social protection. Donors like Canada must fiercely protect aid spending and seek to increase assistance in line with growing need. To meet rapidly changing need through different stages of the pandemic, funds provided should be flexible, accountable and where possible, locally controlled. A moratorium on debt payments would release resources for the fight against coronavirus and help countries provide emergency support to family finances.
3. SUPPORT FOR FAMILY FINANCES.
Each country must develop national support for their poorest and most vulnerable people, including protections for jobs and guaranteed family income. Canada has taken several important measures domestically – and similar efforts are required for families already reliant on aid. Many more families risk falling into poverty unless international support and national budgets are geared towards the most disadvantaged. Particular attention must be paid to women’s economic empowerment given their over-representation in the informal sector. International support for companies should be conditional on them keeping workers on and channeling support to national safety nets.
4. EDUCATION AND LEARNING.
School closure is an important element in the coronavirus containment strategy. National governments and donors must commit and take concerted action to ensure that the 1.5 billion children and students who are unable to attend school have access to safe, quality and accessible distance learning during and after the COVID-19 crisis. Refugee children face grave risks and child marriage may increase. Teachers and caregivers should prepare for an eventual recovery which enables all children, including girls, to return to school when it is safe to do so. Education has a key role in protecting children’s mental health in crisis and support for traumatized and refugee children must be at the forefront.
5. CHILDREN’S SAFETY AND PROTECTION.
We support the UN Secretary General’s call for armed forces and groups around the world to immediately enact a global ceasefire so people can respond and the 415 million children living in conflict are protected from further harm. Governments and international agencies must treat the social services workforce and humanitarians as essential workers. A specific focus on preventing and addressing abuse and neglect of children, domestic and gender-based violence is needed. Cash transfers must be made available to meet basic needs and help prevent negative coping strategies such as increases in child labour and child marriage.
By Bill Chambers, CEO of Save the Children in Canada