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

Far from being the great leveler, Covid-19 is in fact the great un-equalizer, as the largest survey of children and their families since the pandemic began shows.

Six months after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, Save the Children collected information from more than 25,000 children and adults across 37 countries on how Covid-19 was affecting their lives. And the overwhelming trend is that the poor became poorer, the sick became sicker and the risks of violence and losing out on education, nutrition and health care increased dramatically among the most vulnerable communities.

And as expected, girls often suffered disproportionately compared with boys. 

Two-thirds of the girls surveyed said they were doing more chores around the house and more than half reported they were spending additional time caring for siblings. With so many girls out of full-time education, the United Nations estimates as many as 13 million more child marriages could take place over the next 10 years.

One 15-year-old girl in Kenya told us, “I will be in school for five [more] years, not sure which month we will go back. I’m worried about girls getting pregnant because of Covid-19.” Another teenage girl, this one in India, said: “Open our schools, as our education is getting affected and we get bored at home. The government should also do something for the safety of our lives.”

The survey showed another disturbing trend as a consequence of the unprecedented global school closures: Violence at home more than doubled. When schools were closed, the reported rate was 17% compared with 8% when schools were open and the child was able to attend in person. This plea from a 15-year-old girl in Lebanon says it all: “Help me to live safely like a human being.”

Although children are not at high risk of direct harm from the virus itself, they are disproportionately affected by its hidden impacts. The indirect effects of the pandemic means nearly 10 million children won’t return to school this year, with devastating consequences on their development and future job prospects, not to mention the added stress on their caregivers.

Vulnerable children such as refugees, those in minority groups or those living in fragile or conflict-affected states also stand to lose out on their fundamental rights to food, shelter, health and protection.

Since UN Secretary General António Guterres urged a global ceasefire so the world could concentrate on fighting the pandemic, conflicts across the world have continued to kill and maim children, from Yemen to Afghanistan, from Burkina Faso to Myanmar. When will we realize that we are one human family and the virus cares little for our politics and ideologies?

“War should be ended, children should be enrolled in school,” said one 13-year-old girl in Afghanistan. “We are tired of war and enemies,” she said. Another teenage girl, this one in the Philippines, couldn’t have put it better. “In a time of calamity, we should continue to be united,” she said. “Let us avoid for now any political differences.” 

The Covid-19 pandemic has widened inequalities along wealth and gender lines, with poorer households more likely to suffer income losses (82%) than those not classified as poor (70%). And income loss also means vulnerable families can’t pay for health care.

More than eight in 10 children surveyed said they were learning little or nothing at all during school closures. And fewer than 1% of children from poor households said they had access to the internet for online learning demonstrating that Covid-19 is in fact deepening the digital divide.

“There is increasing inequality which has resulted in [more] poverty,” said one 17-year-old Nepali boy. “The government should ensure food for those who are in quarantine.” 

Children can have a voice. They showed us their collective power last year as they made those voices heard on the climate crisis, eventually leading to a week of worldwide demonstrations that became the largest climate strike in history, with millions taking part in every corner of the globe. We should have listened to our children then, and we must listen to them now.

One 17-year-old boy in El Salvador told us: “My message for leaders is that I’m speechless, since they don’t take us into account.” 

To protect an entire generation of children from losing out on a healthy and stable future, the world needs to step up urgently with debt relief for low-income countries and fragile states, so they can invest in the lives of their children. The needs of children and their opinions need to be at the center of any plans to build back what the world has lost so far this year, so they will not end up paying the heaviest price.

Big problems call for big solutions. And who better to think outside the box than the bright young minds who will one day inherit the planet we leave behind for them?

Covid-19 is causing untold misery and suffering the world over. It is reshaping our societies and our politics, so let’s make sure we rise to the challenge. Let’s turn this great un-equalizer into a great opportunity for positive change. 

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Hassan Noor

Hassan Noor is Asia regional director for Save the Children.