Migrant laborers from Bihar wait with their children for for free food during the Covid-19 lockdown, in Kolkata, India, on May 14, 2020. Photo: NurPhoto

What next? A simple two-word question that may elicit a bewildered look, because we have simply never been here before. Covid-19 has disrupted life on an unprecedented scale leading to a dual crisis: the immediate threats to public health, and the financial shockwaves we will feel for years to come. 

As some Asia-Pacific countries potentially emerge from the worst effects of the pandemic, it’s revealing a trail of despair for the most marginalized across the continent – not least the hundreds of millions of children still living in extreme poverty – who will be hit the hardest. 

The virus has already exposed how society was failing the most vulnerable even before Covid-19, how far too many children were denied health care, forced out of school and into early marriage or work, or left in abusive homes without access to protection. 

But in crisis there is opportunity. The huge global response to the pandemic represents a unique chance for governments to build back better, safer and greener. Save the Children has set out a roadmap for how countries can use the disruption caused by Covid-19 to create fairer, healthier, more inclusive and sustainable societies. 

We need a new social contract between governments and people.

Take health care. While medical staff across the region have worked heroically to save lives, in some countries their efforts have been crippled by years of under-investment in public health. 

Bangladesh, India and Pakistan – where health spending as a proportion of GDP has hovered around 1% for years – have all struggled to contain Covid-19. Other countries with better-resourced health-care systems such as Thailand and Vietnam have fared much better. Tellingly, Bangladesh had fewer than 2,000 ventilators for a population of 165 million in May, whereas Thailand could provide 10,000 ventilators for a population of 70 million. 

The pandemic is a wake-up call for governments to invest at least 5% of their gross domestic product on health care – and that too before the next pandemic strikes. 

Education has also been disrupted on a mammoth scale, with more than 1.5 billion students affected globally – more than half of whom are in the Asia-Pacific region. Many countries have turned to online education, but virtual classrooms are inaccessible for those with poor or no Internet connections.

The pandemic has also exposed a sharp digital divide in the world’s most populous region, with Internet penetration rates well below 50% in many countries. 

As the number of Covid-19 cases has risen across the region, so too have cases of domestic abuse. The financial and psychological pressures brought about by lockdowns and social-distancing measures have increased tensions in the home, resulting in huge spikes in calls to domestic-violence hotlines in countries including India, Singapore and the Philippines.

Children have been hit particularly hard as they have been unable to access the protection services they normally would, or find sanctuary in schools. Asia-Pacific leaders must use the pandemic to invest in remote monitoring systems that can better detect violence against children behind closed doors. 

The pandemic has also shown that social workers who play a crucial role in protecting children from harm must be deemed “essential” in the same way that doctors and nurses are. 

If there is a silver lining to the current global upheaval, it’s the small glimpse we have seen of a pollution-free world. Skylines have cleared in major cities like Bangkok and Beijing, while in northern India and Nepal people marvel at crisp views of the Himalayas, obscured for years because of smog.

Asia is home to three of the world’s top five polluters (China, India and Japan) and is already among the hardest-hit regions by the climate emergency. Children are particularly vulnerable to its effects, as they are more susceptible to diseases while their smaller lungs are more easily damaged by pollution.  

There is also a growing body of evidence pointing to clear links between environmental destruction and the transmission of viruses of animal origin to humans. Covid-19 must be a wake-up call to governments in Asia-Pacific region and the wider world. States should accelerate the transition to low-carbon economies, reduce pollution, and move toward sustainable alternative energy sources. 

The pandemic has wrought havoc across war-torn and wealthy societies alike. As Asiba, an eight-year-old girl in Afghanistan, told us: “Covid-19 is a bad virus. People died. I hate it and I’m afraid of Covid-19 because I want to be alive with my family.”

We owe it to children like Asiba to learn our lessons and build a world where children don’t just survive, but thrive. This is our chance to reimagine a better world – and bring it to life.   

Hassan Noor

Hassan Noor is Asia regional director for Save the Children.