COVID-19 pandemic and children’s safety

By Ariani Mohd Nor

There will always be something significant about the way the world has affected us all at the moment; albeit differently, the pandemic in its very specific form has granted us all different outcome.

However, not all outcome is a blessing. The coronavirus has affected vast majority of the world disproportionately, and having a voice to speak up about it is a luxury; which is why not many talk about how this pandemic has affected our most vulnerable – the children.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), not only children are at risk of contracting the virus, but they are also exposed to increased risks of the socioeconomic effects based on the environment they live in. 

As of April 2020, a whopping third of the world’s population has announced a lockdown to combat the spread of the virus. While this is for the best, WHO reports that school closures have impacted more than 1.5 billion children around the world.

Children and online learning

With movement restrictions, isolations and limited social interactions, stress-levels of children are at all-time high and can result in long-term effects. While being online is certainly an option, children are also exposed to the elephant in the room – the digital poverty and divide.

While many are privileged to have digital access and internet at home, Malaysian Youth for Education Reform (MYER) states that the situation cannot be applied to everyone.

“I don’t have a stable learning environment at home,” a Form Five student expressed in a New Straits Times article. “My family is not always understanding, and when the internet lags, I will miss a chunk of the study materials as classes are on live.”

Malaysia is definitely not on par with the accessible technology facilities for everyone, especially those living in rural areas. Thus, children are left with mandatory online classes that they have to attend to replace the physical schools – but with little to no appliances to facilitate their learning.

With technology and the internet being considered as a necessity in this day and age, areas such as the Orang Asli placements in Sabah and Sarawak are still lacking in proper infrastructure for anyone in the area to keep up with the times.

Hence, while online learning can create an alternative solution during the pandemic for children to learn, poverty and digital divide have prevented them from receiving equal opportunities.

Children in the streets

Not all children are born into privileged families. In some cases, they are not born into families at all.

In poverty-stricken districts of India the pandemic could lead to a spike in poverty, child labour and even child marriages, German news outlet DW reported.

Being left out of the educational system with little access to the internet, many have resorted to helping their families with breadwinning.

In a session with the news outlet, 17-year-old Nankesh from South Delhi, expresses his concerns regarding the lockdown in India and how survival is not an option. As rag-picking was his source of income as well as for many others, the lockdown in India has made it difficult for him to ‘stay inside.’

The orphan said, “Coronavirus is for the rich, not for the poor.”

The same can be said about street children in the city of Depok, Indonesia, as they are more at risk of being exposed to sexual abuse – based on a report by Al Jazeera.

Street children in Indonesia are divided into two types: those who work on the streets, and those who live on the streets. According to a study by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, those who live on the streets have no family or a home to go back to; whereas those who work on the street are typically only there for income purposes.

A shelter in the slums of Depok, a city right next to the capital Jakarta, was established by a non-profit organisation in order to place the homeless street children from dangers in the streets. Fortunately, while they remain open, the same cannot be said of many homeless shelters in Indonesia.

Movement restrictions in Indonesia have forced institutions such as schools, public offices and many shelters to remain close as cases in the archipelago are at an all-time high, even today.

Icha, 20, a volunteer at the shelter, shares her story about her friends who have been sexually abused in the streets.

“Living in the streets is not nice. You become vulnerable,” she states. “If someone approaches you promising you a better life, no one would say no in that situation. But that’s how my friends have been sexually abused.”

As of 2018, there are over 16,000 Indonesian children living in the streets. As domestic abuse cases rise during the pandemic, the numbers are expected to rise this year.

Violence at home

A home is not always sweet for everyone. A global survey by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) proves that the pandemic has caused a rapid increase in cases of domestic violence and abuse, and children are most at risk.

“Ongoing school closures and movement restrictions have forced children to live with their abusers and have nowhere to go,” UNICEF executive Henrietta Fore said. “Due to the pandemic’s impact, many protection services have been interrupted.”

With physical help deterred, child welfare hotlines worldwide are seeing an increase of 30 to 40 per cent ever since lockdowns started in March 2020, with calls relating to psychosocial help.

Some of the psychological and physical abuses that they have to endure are being locked up, kicked, slapped, yelled at, and even beaten up. When worse comes to worst, some even have to suffer through sexual abuse, incest and rape.

Earlier this month, a 15-year-old girl from Bukit Antarabangsa, Selangor was reported to have attempted suicide due to constant sexual abuse she has been experiencing at home by her father, New Straits Times reported.

While the perpetrator, her biological father, has been incarcerated with a total of 41 counts related to sexual abuse, the victim will still have to tolerate the lifelong trauma of being tormented by her own father.

As the pandemic affects us, society should not forget the voiceless children, the hidden crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although governments should play a central role in making sure that our children are safe at all times, any change starts with us. Children need safe spaces to grow and we should be the ones providing them with protection.

With the future of our generation in the hands of our children, the least we could do is to pay attention to people around us and be compassionate to one another during these difficult times.***

(This article is written as part of an individual assignment for Feature Writing class)

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