The UN’s children agency has warned that an additional 6,000 children could die daily from preventable causes over the next six months as the COVID-19 pandemic weakens the health systems and disrupts routine services, the first time that the number of children dying before their fifth birthday could increase worldwide in decades.
As the coronavirus outbreak enters its fifth month, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) requested USD 1.6 billion to support its humanitarian response for children impacted by the pandemic. The health crisis is “quickly becoming a child rights crisis. And without urgent action, a further 6,000 under-fives could die each day,” it said.
With a dramatic increase in the costs of supplies, shipment and care, the agency appeal is up from a USD 651.6 million request made in late March – reflecting the devastating socioeconomic consequences of the disease and families’ rising needs. "Schools are closed, parents are out of work and families are under strain," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said on Tuesday.
“As we reimagine what a post-COVID world would look like, these funds will help us respond to the crisis, recover from its aftermath, and protect children from its knock-on effects.” The estimate of the 6,000 additional deaths from preventable causes over the next six months is based on an analysis by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, published on Wednesday in the Lancet Global Health Journal.
UNICEF said it was based on the worst of three scenarios analysing 118 low and middle-income countries, estimating that an additional 1.2 million deaths could occur in just the next six months, due to reductions in routine health coverage, and an increase in so-called child wasting.
Around 56,700 more maternal deaths could also occur in just six months, in addition to the 144,000 likely deaths across the same group of countries. The worst case scenario, of children dying before their fifth birthdays, would represent an increase "for the first time in decades,” Fore said.
"We must not let mothers and children become collateral damage in the fight against the virus. And we must not let decades of progress on reducing preventable child and maternal deaths, be lost,” she said. Access to essential services, like routine immunisation, has already been compromised for hundreds of millions of children and threatens a significant increase in child mortality.
According to a UNICEF analysis, some 77 per cent of children under the age of 18 worldwide are living in one of 132 countries with COVID-19 movement restrictions. The UN agency also spotlighted that the mental health and psychosocial impact of restricted movement, school closures and subsequent isolation are likely to intensify already high levels of stress, especially for vulnerable youth.
At the same time, they maintained that children living under restricted movement and socio-economic decline are in greater jeopardy of violence and neglect. Girls and women are at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence. The UNICEF pointed out that in many cases, refugee, migrant and internally displaced children are experiencing reduced access to protection and services while being increasingly exposed to xenophobia and discrimination.
“We have seen what the pandemic is doing to countries with developed health systems and we are concerned about what it would do to countries with weaker systems and fewer available resources,” Fore said. In countries suffering from humanitarian crises, UNICEF is working to prevent transmission and mitigate the collateral impacts on children, women and vulnerable populations – with a special focus on access to health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education and protection.
To date, the UN agency said it has received USD 215 million to support its pandemic response, and additional funding will help build upon already-achieved results. Within its response, UNICEF has reached more than 1.67 billion people with COVID-19 prevention messaging around hand washing and cough and sneeze hygiene; over 12 million with critical water, sanitation and hygiene supplies; and nearly 80 million children with distance or home-based learning.
The UN agency has also shipped to 52 countries, more than 6.6 million gloves, 1.3 million surgical masks, 428,000 N95 respirators and 34,500 COVID-19 diagnostic tests, among other items.