While some communities continue to struggle with remote learning, millions of children elsewhere have been forced into labor amid COVID-19 school closures, potentially jeopardizing their education indefinitely, according to the New York Times.
Families in a financial pinch due to the economic disruptions caused by the pandemic have enlisted their children to earn extra income. The ensuing jobs are almost always illegal and are oftentimes highly dangerous and exploitative, the New York Times reported.
Children as young as 8 are working on construction sites and in factories, scavenging garbage dumps for recyclables, begging, and being forced into sex work.
Once children begin to work consistently, families come to depend on their labor, making it less likely that they will ever return to school. As a result, the potential of the millions of children now working worldwide is at risk of being squandered.
More than 1.6 billion children have been displaced from the classroom in recent months. The United Nations warns that 24 million children may never return to the classroom because of the pandemic, a development that would reverse decades’ worth of progress in the humanitarian sector.
“The longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return,” Henrietta Fore, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said in a recent conference call with reporters. “That’s why we are urging governments to prioritize reopening schools when restrictions are lifted.”
The rise of child labor is one of the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic that disproportionately affects the world’s poorest people in developing countries.
Agricultural production has been disrupted, leading to shortages of food and rising costs for staple goods. This has been compounded by the massive layoffs that have occurred globally, leaving families with less money to buy food. The World Food Program estimates that an additional 130 million people could face extreme food insecurity by the end of the year, the sharpest rise in recorded history.
Health care services have been reduced as well, as hospitals and health care workers reallocate resources to the pandemic.
Civil liberties in countries like the Philippines, Hungary, and Cambodia have been ominously rolled back under the guise of protecting citizens from the virus, according to Reuters.
Children are less affected by COVID-19 itself, but the chain reactions have been devastating to their long-term development and safety, according to UNICEF.
“While the virus predominantly continues to threaten the health of older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions, the sheer scale of the crisis means that children are again on the frontline,” James Elder, the regional chief of communication for Eastern and Southern Africa for UNICEF, wrote in an op-ed.
The crisis is particularly acute in India, according to the New York Times.
The Times documented the plight of children in India who have painted themselves silver to look like statues, begging at gas stations; who have cut their palms to the bone while working at car garages; and who have struggled to heave loads of gravel at construction sites.
Rahul, an 11-year-old boy from Tumakuru who wants to be a doctor, has been put to work sifting through mounds of garbage for recyclables without any protection.
The job is risky in two ways. Most immediately, Rahul could get injured or become sick due to sharp objects and chemicals. But there’s another long-term risk. As his family comes to rely on his income and as the pandemic drags on, his dreams of becoming a doctor could become disrupted, delayed, and, ultimately, deferred.