COVID-19: UNICEF’S CALL TO SAVE HUMANITY

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Noah Dallaji urges all to heed the call for action, particularly for the sake of the children

In a moving narrative, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recently drew attention to the dire plight of children around the world who may suffer a generational loss except a coordinated global action is taken to prevent, mitigate and respond to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The consequences, UNICEF said, could be devastating for children and for the future of humanity.

To avert this ugly situation, the global body has proposed a six-point action plan which could reunite the world around the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Convention of the Rights of the Children,

Of critical concern here are children subjected to poverty, exclusion or violence, those with disabilities; children affected or displaced by humanitarian crisis and children without parental care who, UNICEF said, could live with the impact of this pandemic for decades to come, hence the call for global action.

The plan of action proposed include: Ensure all children return to school and learn and closing the digital divide; guarantee access to health and nutrition services and make vaccines affordable to every child; support and protect the mental health of children and young people and bring an end to abuse and gender-based violence. Others are access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene; reversal in the rise of child poverty and ensure inclusive recovery for all as well as redoubling efforts to protect and support children and their families living through conflict, disaster and displacement.

Altogether these are very relevant suggestions by UNICEF towards a pragmatic answer to the varied fallouts of the Covid-19 scourge which ravaged the world and hopefully could help to move the world closer to the attainment of the laudable contents of the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is pertinent to state that many of the issues raised by UNICEF had been with many countries before Covid-19 but it is true that they were actually exacerbated by the pandemic, leading to untold deprivations, disruptions and sheer misery. Covid-19 compounded the vulnerabilities with scarcity of life-saving services, and children were particularly hard hit worldwide.

It is estimated that at their peak, school closures disrupted the learning of 91 per cent of students worldwide and some 463 million young people were not able to access remote learning during school shutdowns.

Even with the reopening of schools in many countries especially in Africa where the initial predictions of experts failed to materialize in the context of cases compared to the west, the suggestion by UNICEF to close the digital divide by connecting young people to the internet by 2030 and reaching 3.5 billion children and young people with safe, quality, accessible and equitable online learning is a welcome development.

And in spite of the staggering amount of money spent by governments across the world to mitigate the pandemic, it would appear that much more still needs to be done to recover and possibly stabilize, a situation experts said remains shaky due to the extent of damage to economies.

The economic crisis caused by Covid-19, report says, threatens to hit children hardest, with the number of children living below their national poverty lines expected to rise by 140 million by the end of the year. It is also observed that economic crises are often followed by cuts in government spending, including on programmes for children, a situation that could inflict poverty and deprivation.

In the context of abuse and violence against children, UNICEF noted thus: ”The world is waking to the extent – and lasting impacts – of child abuse and neglect. But Covid-19 crisis has only exacerbated violence, exploitation and abuse as children are cut off from key support services while simultaneously suffering the additional stress placed on families in turmoil. Girls are particularly vulnerable with child marriage and adolescent pregnancy already on the rise”. This is sad indeed.

But hope is not lost. With concerted efforts regarding the UNICE prescriptions, the world could overcome much of the challenges of development with particular reference to the plight of our children worldwide. All we need do is take action and be counted.

Back home, Nigeria is not immune from these challenges arising from Covid-19 but it is gratifying that the government (both federal and states) commendably rose to the occasion by providing leadership and mitigating services despite the initial doubts. Understandably, even before the pandemic, the Nigerian economy had been grappling with recovery from the 2014 oil price shock, with GDP growth hovering around 2.3 per cent in 2019. In February, the IMF revised the 2020 GDP growth rate from 2.5 per cent to 2 per cent as a result of relatively low oil prices and related challenges which impacted negatively on the economy. Despite the challenges, the federal government was realistic in its response to Covid-19 by taking numerous steps to cushion the effect, including health, social and economic measures.

In this regard were the strategic response via the Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill 2020 which provided support to businesses and individual citizens, granting free interest loans, cash transfers to millions of the poor and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) stimulus package which offers N3 million to poor families impacted by Covid-19. Others were the food assistance rations distributed to Nigerians by the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development.

At the level of funding, it is salutary that the federal government in partnership with the private sector and multilateral institutions were committed to the $300 million budget to combat the pandemic to procure medical equipment, personal protective equipment and medicines for Covid-19 control.

Notwithstanding the new lease of life which had seen the relaxation of lockdown and free movement of people and indeed the good news from Pfizer and Moderna on vaccines, it is instructive to continue to observe Covid-19 protocol as a precautionary measure. Covid-19 is not totally gone but quite low across the country.

Importantly, the situation of our children calls for critical interest by heeding the UNICEF global call for action which, in our case, will require continued funding of education and health institutions, thereby expanding access to education and essential health services for children and young people, prioritize the prevention of and response to violence against children as a result of insurgency and displacement, access to clean water, nutrition through the school feeding programme, tackling of child poverty and inclusive recovery plan.

Dallaji, founder, African Children Talent Discovery Foundation, wrote from Abuja