Broken Dreams: Children in the Pandemic Crisis
By Dr. Qaisar Abbas
( The News Sunday published a version of this article today).
“Fifteen-year-old Daniel describes his work at a construction site in Uganda carrying cement, bricks, and other materials up and down the stairs of a 4-story building for 10 hours each day. ‘Sometimes I feel drained,’ he said, but ‘I have to finish the work and earn my pay” (Human Rights Watch).
“The greatest pain is to be left alone. The last meal that mother had prepared was the last meal in the house. In the days after her death, no one even asked us whether there was anything to eat” (BBC report on the young girl in India whose parents died during the pandemic crisis).
“Thirteen-year-old Abdur Rasheed is an informal worker in Islamabad. His source of income is washing windows of cars that stop at traffic signals. On a good day, Rasheed earned 500 rupees by doing this hazardous job. But the outbreak of coronavirus in the country has led to his already meager income falling to almost nothing” (Deutsche Welle).
These are only some examples of how the pandemic crisis is affecting children worldwide. Little angels like these face the worst impacts globally, from Africa to Latin America and Asia, including the subcontinent.United Nations set its development targets with the reduction in child labor as one of the goals. Substantial results were achieved during the last few years as the number of child workers was reduced from 245 million to 152 million worldwide.
The organization, however, says the current pandemic crisis has pushed this achievement back, and many children, who should have been in schools, have started working to help their families.As the most vulnerable part of our society, children seem to be at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole. There is something wrong with this picture.Child labor and coronavirusIn its World Day Against Child Labor (June 12) message, the United Nations elaborated on the hardships our children face:
“The COVID-19 health pandemic and the resulting economic and labor market shock are having a huge impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. Unfortunately, children are often the first to suffer. The crisis can push millions of vulnerable children into child labor.” From the onset, governments and world organizations focused on adults and the elderly since these demographic groups are thought to be the most vulnerable.
On the contrary, children are also severely affected by the pandemic. Although these effects are indirect, they are long-term. By ignoring this population, public and private institutions have increased hardships for children. A recent Human Rights Watch (HRC) brief also reveals that children face long-term and devastative effects of the COVID-19 to an unimaginable level. They are joining the working class to support their families, and in some cases, they face the consequences of their parent’s illness or death directly.HRC surveyed working children in Ghana, Uganda, and Nepal, showing adverse effects on them.
It surveyed 81 children in these three countries working in brick kilns, carpet factories, gold and stone mines, fisheries, agriculture, and other service sectors to boost family income.These children talked about their hardships, including long work hours, dangerous working conditions, low wages, and violations of their human rights by the owners. According to the surveyed children, the pandemic and lockdown have left adverse effects on their families’ financial status. As the businesses closed, their parents are unemployed, markets have been closed as no transportation is available, and buyers have disappeared. In several cases, children started working to help their families with the expectation that they will return to school one day, but it prolonged. Children are working in dangerous environments in Uganda and Ghana. They lift heavy loads and work hard in the mines in unbearable conditions. On top of it, they do not get any health assistance when wounded at work. They are working long hours in these three countries, in some cases 10 to 14 hours a day for seven days per week.
Despite this hard work, they do not get paid enough for their level of work. About one-fourth of the surveyed children told the survey team that the owners either pay less or refuse to pay on different pretexts.
They are hardly paid four dollars a day in Nepal and two dollars in Uganda for their hard labor. Child workers also revealed that their parents’ deteriorating health, disabilities, or death are the other reasons for child labor as they are compelled to find work. However, the devastative effects of the coronavirus are not limited to these three countries. South Asia is also one of the regions where the pandemic and poverty have brought new hardships to children.
A massive crisis in South AsiaIn South Asia, where children are already suffering because of lack of health resources, deepening poverty, and rampant child labor, the pandemic crisis has added new dimensions. India is one of those countries where the pandemic has created a nationwide emergency. Although India is one of the world’s largest centers to produce the vaccine, its distribution within the country is seriously jeopardized by exporting it to other countries while Indians are buying expensive vaccines in the black market. Bad administration and government inefficiency are also having adverse effects on children.
According to a BBC report, the children whose parents have been affected or passed away are in a pathetic situation. Soni, a young girl from Bihar, had to bury her mother alone when she died as no one in the village would come to their assistance. Their neighbors cordoned off her home until they were cleared from the coronavirus.
Consequently, they had to go through pain and hunger when even their friends refused to help them and her siblings.“After the death of our parents, nobody wanted to touch them, so I had to dig my mother’s grave and bury them. I did all this alone,” she told the reporter.Fortunately, after these reports made it to the media, private organizations and public institutions have come forward to help the children.
According to BBC, the Women and Child Development Minister Simriti Irani has announced that help is available for children. She said 577 similar cases were reported from all Indian states in April and May this year.Several organizations in India are working to provide a home to children whose parents have died. Social media are being used as a source to collect data on these children.
Social activists, however, say regulations and the red tape in government offices cause delays in the adoption process.Pakistan is another case in point. Germany’s international broadcasting organization Deutsche Welle (DW) says on its website, “In South Asia nations like Pakistan, where child labor is rampant, COVID-19 has brought more hardship to underage workers.
Meanwhile, the resulting economic crisis is pushing even more children into child labor.”In Pakistan, the focus is on the elderly and the terminally ill when it comes to lockdown, social distancing, and controlling the effects of the pandemic crisis. Children are still out of these debates, and as a result, this vulnerable population is suffering in many ways. Nevertheless, chances are children can be affected by the coronavirus, according to the new research. Although it needs further investigation, the experts say the coming third wave of coronavirus can infect children. The daily Dawn reported that there had been more cases in children compared to the last year.
Additionally, there has been a surge in coronavirus cases in the 10- to 20-year-old children during the last seven months.The crisis has also diverted attention from routine vaccinations for mothers and children. That means a large population of children and mothers are excluded from vaccination for diseases other than the pandemic. International Labor Organization (ILO) says an increase in poverty has been the significant reason behind children’s labor in Pakistan.
The pandemic has significantly added hardships for the children who work in brick kilns, assist elders in agriculture, or work as domestic workers in the cities. Asad Butt of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan told DW that, “In cities, most child laborers work in small shops, hotels and people’s houses. Many of them have lost their jobs due to the health crisis. Welfare organizations are trying to help them, but they cannot do what the state can.” He is not so optimistic about improving conditions for children in Pakistan as this government only intends to protect the elite.
State policies and children’s plight.Over three million people have lost their lives worldwide as part of the pandemic crisis, forcing thousands of children to be the breadwinner for their families.According to the United Nations, 152 million children are working worldwide, and 72 million are working hard in dangerous conditions. Not only do they work in a hazardous environment, but they also work for long hours. UNICEF and International Labor Organization have said in a recent brief that coronavirus had been a significant factor behind reduced income of families, forcing children of low-income families to work and earn money for their families. In these conditions, people would like to use every method to survive and support families.
When income becomes more significant, child education takes a back seat. Even a one percent increase in poverty in some countries leads to a 0.7 percent rise in child labor.As children are forced to work, stresses at home, economic downturn, and lack of education add to hardships, leading to psychological complications. Government and private institutions must come forward to ease these burdens for children in every society.
Several countries provide social protection to low-income families to help them cope with health and economic stress. The UNICEF and ILO brief mentioned above also proposed several measures to meet the challenge of child labor, including:“more comprehensive social protection, easier access to credit for poor households, the promotion of decent work for adults, measures to get children into school, including the elimination of school fees, and more resources for labour inspections and law enforcement.
”When schools are closed, children mainly bear the brunt of the crisis. According to an estimate, about one billion children are being affected in 130 countries. It is a daunting task to bring these young children back to school, but it is possible if national and international organizations join hands with a mission to send these children back to classes. For UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, “As poverty rises, schools close and the availability of social services decreases, more children are pushed into the workforce. As we re-imagine the world post-COVID, we need to make sure that children and their families have the tools, they need to weather similar storms in future.
Quality education, social protection services and better economic opportunities can be game changers.” Online education for school children has become the new teaching method, where schools provide instruction at home. But only those children who have the internet and computer facilities can avail these opportunities. Although the internet has become an effective tool in providing education, other media are available to educate children.
Radio and TV have spread literacy among the adult populations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In Bhutan, radio is still an essential source of information, which can be used for literacy.Unique curriculum and teaching methodologies are available for school dropouts. The General Education Diploma (GED) program in the United States provides matriculation certificates to students who left formal education at one point. GED can be a model program in other countries, where many students are out of school.
With good planning and modifying the curriculum according to local needs, these children can be educated and become a valuable part of their societies. National plans should address long-term effects on children’s health impacted by the global pandemic crisis.
For the Indian Nobel Laureate and activist with a mission to end child labor, Kailash Satyarthi:“We cannot afford to lose all the achievements and progress we have made over the last few decades. Children are not willing to listen to the rhetoric of good intent….they need action, and they need results.”We live in a highly divided world where children, women, and the poor are at the bottom of our social ladder. We must address inequalities within our global and national systems to create a better world that can face the challenges such as the COVID-19 in a more meaningful and practical way.
The author is an academic scholar and freelance journalist based in the United States. He recently coedited a book, “From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State, and Society (Routledge 2020).
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