Children in the times of the COVID-19 crisis

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by European Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica and Commissioner Didier Reynders

The COVID-19 pandemic is a human tragedy of massive proportions. We often hear that this is a disease that does not discriminate, but in practice, the opposite is true. Vulnerable groups – the elderly, homeless or people with underlying health conditions for example – are at greater risk, as are women who make up a disproportionate number of essential workers and carers in direct contact with the virus. Children have been deeply affected by the measures taken to counter the spread of the disease. Therefore, as we draw up our recovery plans, we must ensure that children do not become the silent victims of this crisis, by taking into account their needs and rights, and by giving their voices and concerns the place they deserve.

Worldwide, some 1.5 billion children are out of school due to confinement[1]. New technologies have helped to support our children’s learning and to stay connected. Yet unlike adults, children are in a developmental stage of their lives, during which the impact of the crisis is far greater. Being out of school has a much greater impact on a child than for an adult being out of office for the same period of time. Many children are experiencing emotional distress due to physical distancing and uncertainties about their future. As our new normal may require continued distance learning, equal and free access to quality digital education and educational public TV programming must be strengthened. Not least because the switch to home schooling and online education has laid bare the inequalities in access to education for children from disadvantaged families, with parents or carers who are not always able to help with homework, or provide access to technological equipment or the Internet.

Many children have spent an increased and often unsupervised amount of time online, which increases their vulnerabilities to the risks of the digital world. We need to make sure that children are equipped with the tools and knowledge they need to be safe online. Parents and teachers also need to be supported in their roles, including with regard to new, educational technologies.

For children already living under precarious socio-economic conditions, access to support and social services has been further limited, risking greater poverty as their parents’ incomes are affected by the economic fallout of the crisis. Domestic violence has risen, with children and women the most affected. Much abuse happens unnoticed, behind closed doors, out of sight of teachers or social workers. Thanks to EU legislation, every EU Member State now has a child helpline (116 111 European number) and a missing children hotline (116 000 European number) in place. Today, more than ever, it is crucial that these services are adequately supported, funded and accessible to all children in need. And we need to provide help for health issues of children – including their mental health – for instance through psychosocial support, counselling, social and protective services. Many children living in care have not been able to see their families for weeks or have been sent back home for a long time, without adequate support both during and after the confinement period. Children in juvenile detention face similar challenges. The crisis we face calls for efforts to ensure access to child-friendly and crisis-resilient justice systems.

All this illustrates why it will be crucial that we embed a strong child rights dimension in our recovery efforts and response plans. Repairing our social fabric and preparing a better future for our children and generations to come is at the heart of the European Commission’s recovery policy of 27 May. Our proposed assistance is to provide financial support to measures combatting child poverty. The Commission will come forward with a Skills Agenda for Europe and an updated Digital Education Action Plan which will include children’s digital skills. The Commission will also propose a European Child Guarantee in 2021 to ensure that all children have access to basic services like health and education.

We need to reach out to children and young people to be able to genuinely understand the realities that they have been through during this pandemic. This will enable us to put the right policies in place to support them as best we can. As the Commission works to prepare its new comprehensive EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child to be adopted in early 2021, we will draw on the experience and effects of the COVID-19 crisis, and rely on the expertise of child rights organisations to include children’s voices in our Strategy.

Since we are not yet fully able to foresee the long-term impact of this crisis on our children, we need to ensure that our recovery plans take their needs into account. When saying that children are the future, we should not forget to add that they are individuals with their own rights here and now. It is our duty to protect them – and the best way to do so is by including them in our work, in the present and in the future.

[1] UNICEF data