Children infected by COVID-19 are likely to only have mild symptoms. Nonetheless this crisis is having, and will continue to have, an enormous impact on their lives.
The challenges of staying home are compounded for children living in poor housing, and for those for whom school lunches were the only hot meal a day. Many families will struggle to provide a home learning environment. We are also particularly concerned for children in the child protection system and how COVID-19 impacts vital social care and family support services.
As Eurochild adjusts to this new reality, we asked members to keep us updated on how the pandemic and the resulting government responses are impacting children, how civil society is responding, and what policies might help protect children’s rights in the immediate, short and longer term. It is work in progress, as we try to track the rapidly changing situation across Europe, but we can already detect some key areas of concern.
With schools closing across Europe, their capacity to support children’s on-going learning at home varies enormously both within and between countries. We will, unfortunately, see existing inequity in our education systems exacerbated by the crisis. Some schools offer excellent on-line learning, and families will adapt their schedules to support their children. Some families don’t even have internet access. The crisis is likely to lay bare deep cracks in our public education system, where quality has become increasingly dependent on parents’ agency.
We know the importance of a child’s first months and years in determining their later emotional, physical and cognitive development. Kindergartens, family centres, health visitors can all provide a lifeline for families with very young children. Again it will be those most in need who are less able to cope without access to such services. We will be stepping up our efforts to ensure early childhood development remains a priority for governments throughout Europe. Effective public investment during this critical period is key to breaking cycles of disadvantage. We cannot afford to lose sight of this as we eventually transition from crisis response to envisioning a future post COVID-19.
Children in alternative care are a cohort that are particularly vulnerable at this time. These children rely on care professionals and social workers for their well-being. Whilst, understandably, health workers are in the spotlight during this crisis, we must not forget caregivers or social workers providing this essential service, sometimes putting their own health or that of their families at risk.
The crisis and its aftermath will put extra strain on child protection systems, which, in many countries across Europe, are still in desperate need of reform. The risks of domestic violence may increase as the period of confinement drags on. Helplines and online counselling are essential. But beyond the immediate crisis, well-designed and comprehensive family support can help reduce risks of child neglect and abuse. It will be important to accelerate efforts to end institutional care. Children in public care need individualised care and support, which is best provided in families.
Meanwhile, as COVID-19 monopolises the media and infiltrates every aspect of our daily lives, the migration and refugee crisis does not go away. We are supporting calls to urgently evacuate refugee camps on the Greek islands, where appalling overcrowding coupled with the COVID-19 could provoke a humanitarian disaster.
If there is anything this crisis can teach us, it is our shared vulnerability. We draw hope from the surge in solidarity in our communities. Many of our members are involved in organising delivery of food and hygiene equipment to families in need, creating resources to help adults stuck at home with young children, or advising governments on how emergency measures impact families and children.
At the level of the European Union, we’re witnessing the critical importance of coordination and cooperation among Member States’ public health responses. As we emerge from this crisis and take stock of its far-reaching social and economic consequences, we believe the EU’s role in building a fair and sustainable recovery will be more important than ever. That’s why we will continue to push for a European Child Guarantee – an initiative that can help guide and support Member States to ensure all children grow up with equal chances.
We also take inspiration from the few global leaders that took the initiative to communicate directly with children and young people as part of their crisis response (Jacinda Ardern – New Zealand, Nicola Sturgeon – Scotland, Erna Solberg – Norway). Children are not just ‘adults in the making’, they are fully-fledged citizens now. If we treat them as such by sharing information, encouraging their opinions and involving them in decisions, we will be much more resilient as a society in the future. We draw enormous strength from involving children directly in our activities.
As a pan-European umbrella network, Eurochild intends to play its part in shaping the Europe that emerges from this devastating pandemic. There will be many lessons to be drawn about how our social, education and health care systems respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in society. We will use this time wisely to reflect, to exchange and to learn from one another, drawing strength from our members’ vast experience, knowledge and shared commitment to realise children’s rights.