COVID-19 is a health and socio-economic crisis with effects that will be felt around Africa for many years. But the pandemic will hit the continent’s children the hardest, Save the Children has warned.
The global children’s rights and well-being NGO has been investigating what the impact of COVID-19 could be on children, both directly and indirectly.
The report, called "How to Protect a Generation at Risk", was published last week as a result of the investigation, and it paints a grim picture for the continent’s children.
The pandemic is putting children at a greater risk of contracting malaria, it highlighted, while school closures and other lockdown-related restrictions are also exposing children to increasing hunger, violence, and sexual exploitation.
This threatens to significantly reverse progress that’s been made to improve the lives of children around Africa by potentially decades, according to the report, and push an additional 33 million children into poverty.
“COVID-19 has enormous implications for the education, health, nutrition, and protection of millions of children in Africa,” Doris Mpoumou, director of the Africa Union Liaison Office for Save the Children, said.
Mpoumou said COVID-19 could compromise the education of a generation, and likely keep girls out of school permanently.
Here are some of the key findings from the report:
1. Impact on the fight against malaria
The Save the Children report says Africa’s health systems, which are already overburdened and under-resourced, will not be able to keep up with the fight against malaria and other preventable deaths.
Malaria is one of the leading causes of death globally, and the second biggest health-related killer in sub-Saharan Africa — which accounts for 93% of malaria-related deaths in the world.
“[COVID-19 is] disrupting routine health services that are likely to increase disease incidences and deaths from preventable and treatable diseases, especially children,” says the report. “Following some projections, malaria deaths may reach 769,000 in Africa — levels that were last seen 20 years ago.”
One of the key reasons for this increase is the disruptions caused by COVID-19 in accessing mosquito nets and antimalarial medicines.
2. Millions of children are likely to stop going to school, even beyond COVID-19
“The COVID-19 pandemic is jeopardising Africa’s children's formal learning, health and safety, and protection, particularly the girls,” the report states.
It’s estimated that more than 260 million children in Africa who should be in pre-primary and secondary school are out of school as a result of COVID-19 closures. That’s 22% of the continent’s population.
School closures don’t just interrupt learning and development. They are also putting children in more danger of violence, hunger, and exploitation.
Maryam, 20, who’s a young ambassador for Save the Children in Nigeria, said digital learning is putting children at risk of more harm by increasing their exposure to inappropriate web content and online predators.
“Some schools have introduced distance-learning platforms, which makes students living in low-income homes digitally excluded,” she said. “Also, many public schools do not have the resources, technology, and equipment to provide online teaching.”
3. Increased vulnerability for refugees
“This pandemic has also a catastrophic impact for the most vulnerable who do not have access to social protection systems, including the most vulnerable children,” the report says.
It adds that children who live on the street, internally-displaced people, and refugees — already exposed to greater risk of getting COVID-19 as they often lack access to proper sanitation — are also likely to face greater insecurity.
Migrant, refugee, and internally-displaced children are already vulnerable. School closures take away a safe space and source of information, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“This safety mechanism is now lost, and worryingly some children may never return to school as their parents face increased economic uncertainty,” said UNICEF.
4. Rising hunger
Africa is already prone to food shortages caused by climate change, conflict, lack of economic opportunities and other factors. Yet COVID-19 is set to “radically exacerbate” food insecurity in the continent, the World Economic Forum warned in April.
This is because lockdowns have disrupted food distribution. However, different countries and regions also have to grapple with natural disasters.
In East Africa, swarms of desert locusts have destroyed farms and grazing fields. In Southern Africa, droughts and floods have left 45 million people hungry and without any food security, the World Food Programme (WFP) said in January.
Lola Castro, WFP’s regional director for southern Africa, said the crisis was on a scale previously unseen.
“Recent estimates of food insecurity suggest that as many as 107 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were acutely food insecure," said Save the Children’s report.
It added: “Many projections show that the food insecure population could double in the coming months, which of course is a serious nutritional impact for children.”
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