A Rohingya refugee girl carries a child at the Kutupalang makeshift refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on July 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The Covid-19 pandemic is the defining global health crisis of our time. Since the emergence of the coronavirus late last year, the disease it causes has spread to every continent, and it’s impacting children everywhere. That is why Save the Children is launching its biggest global emergency appeal in its 100-year history.

Bangladesh confirmed its first Covid-19-related death in early March, and more cases are being reported almost every day. This global pandemic is threatening children’s rights and exposing them to potentially life-changing disruptions in health care, education and well-being.

Children can become “collateral damage” because of the immense pressure on the Bangladeshi health system during a crisis, which could mean children don’t get treated for preventable diseases like pneumonia or malaria. Children may also be exposed to mental and psychosocial trauma due to instances of isolation, stigmatization and neglect, or the loss of loved ones. 

It is commendable that the Bangladeshi government has taken primary preventive measures such as developing a national preparedness plan to ensure that health systems can provide access to services throughout the Covid-19 outbreak. However, adequate measures to stop new infections from occurring must be initiated at the community level through mass public information campaigns – adults and children need to know how to reduce their exposure to infection. It is also vital that this information reaches everyone, including those who never learned to read or write. 

In responding to this global crisis, health workers are the backbone of the entire health system, working tirelessly on the frontline. They are our modern-day soldiers, risking their lives so we can be safe. Hence it is important to ensure that health workers have the equipment they need to protect themselves while being adequately compensated for their efforts in service of the health of the nation at this critical time. 

As Covid-19 spreads across the country and with most of the health services’ capacity focused on combating the virus, access to vital health-care services could become reduced for non-Covid-19 cases, with a potential disruption of routine immunization and antenatal services for children and mothers. We could see a shortage of appropriately trained personnel, poor documentation and use of information, and a lack of essential equipment. All this could threaten the lives of vulnerable children. Health facilities often struggle to provide the rapid emergency care needed in times of crisis, particularly in the case of children. 

Save the Children’s extensive experience of responding to infectious-disease outbreaks tells us that children’s health is often compromised as a result of abridged quality of care and it is often the most marginalized children and families who end up paying the heaviest price. The Bangladeshi government should continue to extend support to all vulnerable households by improving quality of care and patient safety, which are critical in the fight against Covid-19.

Meanwhile, the international community – in particular the Group of Twenty countries – must come up with single global plan to help confront one of the biggest threats to global health and security in modern times. This plan must be underpinned by debt relief, increased financing for public health, liquidity and safety nets for the most vulnerable, and effective coordination.  

The world is facing an unprecedented crisis. Together, we can beat Covid-19, but only if we stand in solidarity with everyone, rich and poor, young and old. Because no one is safe until everyone is safe.  

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Shamim Jahan

Dr Shamim Jahan is a public health specialist with more than 30 years of experience working with children. He is currently the deputy country director at Save the Children in Bangladesh.