This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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COVID-19 knows no borders and it doesn’t discriminate: no country, rich or poor, is immune. And as the world grapples with the pandemic, children’s lives are being turned upside down.
Millions of children around the world are frightened and out of school. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable children, the impacts of COVID-19 are already devastating and potentially lifelong. These children are facing even greater obstacles to their survival and safety.
You cannot stay home if you don’t have one or it’s unsafe. You cannot practise social distancing if you’re living in a refugee camp. You cannot distance learn if you’re forced into child marriage.
It is now more urgent than ever for us to take action to protect the lives and rights of a generation of children. Failure to do so could reverse 20 years of progress in reducing poverty, cutting child deaths and expanding access to learning.
The global community is saying all the right things but unless there is concerted global action, the poorest and most vulnerable will bear the brunt of this crisis. Already, as economic recession looms developing countries are fighting a deadly mix of COVID-19 and rising poverty, Save the Children estimates that the consequences of COVID-19 could push between 40 and 59 million people in sub-Saharan Africa into extreme poverty –more than half of those being children.
Read the OECD’s key policy response on When a global virus meets local realities: Coronavirus (COVID-19) in West Africa
As part of our Agenda for Action, Save the Children is calling on global leaders to #CanceltheDebt so the world’s poorest countries can fight this pandemic. Governments in these countries are being confronted with an impossible choice. They can either repay creditors, or invest in the front-line health services, safety nets, and economic recovery measures needed to mitigate the pandemic, combat poverty and restore inclusive growth. They cannot do both. Debt must not take precedence over people’s lives. Cancelling debt is the quickest way to ensure money stays in the countries that need it so they can tackle the urgent health, social and economic crises caused by coronavirus.
The world’s 75 poorest countries will pay USD 60 billion in debts to external creditors in 2020 – more than they are set to receive in donor aid to combat COVID-19. This burden will rob them of the financial resources they need for investment in testing, medical equipment, health workers and safety nets to battle the outbreak, and will push millions more children into poverty. When governments invest in social safety nets, they can help protect a generation of children and their families, and stop the projected reversal in development.
Debt relief for poorer countries isn’t just the right thing to do for our shared humanity: it’s the smart thing to do to save lives and protect our global prosperity.
Our actions now will protect children today, tomorrow and for years to come
I continue to be astonished at the resilience and adaptability of children who have been forced to grow up too soon, to live in poverty or endure conflict. We must protect them from yet another burden.
This is why Save the Children is also calling on governments to develop national support systems for the poorest and most vulnerable children and families to help strengthen health systems and protect jobs, as well as guarantee family income and access to education.
It is the most at-risk children who will be hardest hit by this pandemic without these national support systems. Refugees and displaced children, street children and children with disabilities risk being even further excluded, isolated and neglected. As pressures mount on low-income families, children may need to work to support family incomes. Girls especially may face the burden of caring for family members. Many girls will be more at risk from gender-based violence and child marriage. Our global response to coronavirus must be inclusive and recognise the particular risks girls face to their survival, learning opportunities and protection.
Children of the Pandemic: Let’s make this generation the healthiest that has ever lived, by Kate Pickett, Author; Professor of Epidemiology, University of York
Where schools are still closed, governments must put in place accessible distance-learning tools so children can continue their education. In rural communities or those with limited internet access, Save the Children is working with governments to develop radio and television programmes so children can continue learning. We also must begin planning now for the re-opening of schools in a safe and inclusive way. If plans are not put in place urgently, the poorest and most marginalised children run the risk of never returning to school, exposing them to abuse, neglect, violence and exploitation.
By working together, we can protect children so they can survive, continue to learn and stay safe. If COVID-19 is to be overcome anywhere, it must be addressed everywhere. Children cannot be left behind in the global response. This is the biggest crisis of our lifetime. But it’s also a once–in-a-lifetime opportunity for the world to come together and do the right thing. We may be physically apart, but we stand together in solidarity.
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