The period from pregnancy to age three is the most important developmental window in a child’s life. This is when foundations are laid for future health, wellbeing, learning and productivity. But it is also a period when seeds for inequalities are sown and damage can be caused that is hard to undo.
Childhood should be a time of joyful memories, of playing with parents, siblings and friends; pushing boundaries, stumbling, finding new creative solutions, and getting back up on your feet; all the while feeling secure, knowing that your parents or caregivers will always watch out for you.
To millions of children around the world, the joy and excitement of childhood is currently at risk, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Protecting the rights and needs of young children
Keeping the rights and needs of young girls and boys, our future generations, at the forefront of the humanitarian response to COVID-19 is crucial. Data from the last global pandemic of similar magnitude, the Spanish Flu, that also caused entire cities to lock down and killed millions of people, illustrates the challenge that we now face. People from the 1918 birth cohort had reduced educational attainment, lower socioeconomic status, and higher reliance on public financial support all the way into the 1980s.
Emergency measures cannot come at the cost of other vital interventions like vaccinations.
From the Ebola response, we know that young children are often hit hardest. They are impacted when parents are stressed, ill and unable to provide nurturing and responsive care, and when they die. They are impacted when pre-schools close as these are often community-run and therefore not always supported through a national response in the same way as primary schools are.
They are the most vulnerable group of all when quarantine measures erode households’ income and ability to provide for children, including adequate nutrition and access to health services. A valuable lesson from the Ebola response is that emergency measures cannot come at the cost of other vital interventions like vaccinations that will just leave children exposed once the emergency ends.
Vulnerable children aren't getting support they need to thrive
Despite all the evidence around the critical importance of children’s early years, many of the world’s most vulnerable children living in crisis-affected contexts are not being given the nurturing care, services and supports they need to thrive and develop.
A happy, supportive and playful family will be better equipped to thrive.
Holistic and integrated Early Childhood Development (ECD) services in emergencies remain severely underfunded, with only around 2% of global humanitarian aid going towards vital ECD work. The fact that ECD work must be often integrated into other sectors, including health, nutrition, protection, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), and education, means that it often falls through the gaps.
Acting and investing early in ECD in any emergency response is not only morally the right thing to do, it is also among the humanitarian responses with the highest return: any dollar spent today has a return of 13%.
ECD programmes offer a strong entry point for COVID-19 responses. In many places around the world, we already have parents’ groups in place, and when face to face meetings of these groups are no longer possible, parents can continue to connect through text-based services like WhatsApp or other means of communication.
These platforms enable us to continue to support parents during prolonged lockdowns, as well as increase awareness about symptoms, effective sanitation and hygiene practices, and the importance of physical distancing. Many Plan International colleagues around the world are already developing and translating messages for parents about COVID-19 prevention into local languages, including information targeted at young children.
Supporting caregivers to nurture children should be core response
Supporting parents and caregivers – men and women - to continue to provide nurturing care for their children should be at the core of our response. This includes helping parents establish and maintain vital social support networks as well as equipping them with tools to help deal with the stress they themselves experience as a result of the pandemic.
We know that play is vital for holistic child development and especially in times of adversity, play can help children cope, maintain a sense of happiness and fun as well as stimulate learning.
With all the right information about COVID-19 prevention and management, a happy, supportive and playful family will be better equipped to thrive. So, we must continue to elevate playful, nurturing parenting as a key response as we, globally, tackle COVID-19.