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Child health during COVID-19

children. School children having mid-day meal in school, Radhu Khandu Village, Sikkim, India. Image credit: Keith Levit / 123rf
School children eating a midday meal in a school in the village of Radhu Khandu, Sikkim. Image credit: Keith Levit / 123rf

The COVID-19 pandemic has exerted manifold effects on society and health from all angles – including on child health. On this Universal Children’s Day, it is worthwhile assessing the impact.

Telangana governor Dr Tamilisai Soundararajan pointed to child health earlier this week. She called for more attention to be paid to child health; as reported by The Hans India, “the Governor stated that it was high time that more equipment and infrastructure was created to ensure better infant and maternal care. She called upon the donors to supplement liberally to the existing infrastructure and medical equipment.” 

Child health problems are not issues limited to Telangana. It is a painfully pan-Indian crisis. COVID-19 has only underlined the fault lines. 

Earlier this year, a modelling study published in The Lancet found that ‘if routine health care is disrupted and access to food is decreased (as a result of unavoidable shocks, health system collapse, or intentional choices made in responding to the pandemic), the increase in child and maternal deaths will be devastating.” It said

“Our least severe scenario…over six months would result in 253,500 additional child deaths and 12 200 additional maternal deaths. Our most severe scenario…over six months would result in 1 157 000 additional child deaths and 56 700 additional maternal deaths. These additional deaths would represent an increase of 9·8–44·7 percent in under-5 child deaths per month, and an 8·3–38·6 percent increase in maternal deaths per month, across the 118 countries.”

The study “[estimated] the additional maternal and under-five child deaths resulting from the potential disruption of health systems and decreased access to food.”

Image credit: irinanaz / 123rf
Ensuring child health and wellbeing is considered in sustainable development (i.e. implementing the Sustainable Development Goals) requires a multisectoral approach. Image credit: irinanaz / 123rf

COVID-19 aside, child health has long suffered from underinvestment and under-resourcing. Earlier this year, a landmark report published in The Lancet by a Commission convened by The Lancet, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization (WHO) found “few countries have recorded much progress towards achieving” the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as they pertain to the wellbeing of children and adolescents. As Health Issues India reported at the time

“In many respects, India lags on the SDGs. While the country has made some improvements, it continues to face significant socioeconomic inequities. It frequently reels from the effects of a changing climate and chokes on toxic air as a result of pollution. 

“It is home to a dual burden of malnutrition that sees swathes of its young people either severely undernourished or dangerously overweight. It grapples with pervasive sex discrimination and gender bias that threatens the health and lives of the country’s girls and women. It bears a high burden of communicable and noncommunicable diseases and health issues linked to maternal, neonatal, and perinatal conditions. Readily accessible and affordable healthcare is not the reality for many of the country’s citizens.”

We also noted in detail the ruinous effects of climate change and environmental degradation,  infectious disease, and harmful commercial marketing on child health.

The United Nations established Universal Children’s Day in 1954 “to promote international togetherness, awareness among children worldwide, and improving children’s welfare.” In 1959, “the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. It is also the date in 1989 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child…mothers and fathers, teachers, nurses and doctors, government leaders and civil society activists, religious and community elders, corporate moguls and media professionals, as well as young people and children themselves, can play an important part in making World Children’s Day relevant for their societies, communities and nations.” 

As I wrote earlier this year, quoting the Lancet Commission’s report, “what the world and future generations need is “a new global movement for child and adolescent health.” One cannot afford to look only into the immediate future; they must address the long-term ramifications of what failing to act on the health and development challenges of our time will mean for our planet and its people. The building of “a new global movement” is cost-effective, morally imperative and, as the report underlines, “an urgent necessity.””

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