COVID-19’s hidden impact on children: A call to action
27 October 2020 at 7:00 am
It’s time for action to address COVID-19’s toll on children and set Australia up for the future, writes Howard Choo, Save the Children’s Australian social policy and advocacy adviser.
COVID-19 is affecting us all in countless ways. Some consequences are obvious while others are more hidden, often falling on those who are least visible and least able to be heard. In many cases, the severest toll will not be taken immediately – as devastating as the short-term effects have already been – but through an extended “long tail” of harm over time. Foremost among these hidden harms are COVID-19’s damaging effects on children.
Children are the invisible victims of COVID-19
More than any other members of our society, children’s lives have been up-ended by the pandemic. Schools and learning have been disrupted, families are under growing financial and other stress, risks of abuse and neglect have soared, mental health concerns are on the rise, and for many the spectre of a slide towards poverty looms – with around 1.1 million Australian children relying on the coronavirus supplement to JobSeeker and other support payments.
Children are resilient, and many have the personal resources and the support around them to weather these challenges. But other children are being left behind – and they are overwhelmingly those who were already on the margins before COVID-19 arrived.
Unless we act now, the pandemic will irretrievably impair these children’s development and permanently diminish their life opportunities. We risk creating a lost generation, with a child’s starting point in life determining their future trajectory, and entrenching inequality even deeper in our society than it already runs.
This is a pivotal moment
We have seen the power of governments and communities to make large changes in response to COVID-19 – in policy settings, government investment, and society-wide behaviour change. Measures that were previously unimaginable are now on the table. Genuine reform is possible.
While government’s focus has understandably been on the immediate challenges, we need to also lift our gaze and look ahead. Now is the time to build the foundations for longer-term recovery. Now more than ever, we should be not only asking what kind of society we want to be, but we should also be emboldened by the belief that we can shape our collective future.
The choices we make now will reverberate. Those choices will say everything about what we really value.
To build back better, put children at the centre
There’s an unmistakable need for action to address COVID-19’s impact on children and their rights in Australia. And there’s a clear window of opportunity for change – for system-wide reforms to dismantle entrenched disadvantage and build a stronger, fairer and more resilient Australia.
Children are our future, and they are the heart of our communities today. This generation of children could emerge from the current crisis not only on track but even more resilient and better equipped to achieve their potential in life than before. But if we fail to act now, too many will fall behind permanently and never recover.
Save the Children has analysed how the pandemic is affecting children across Australia – especially those facing particular disadvantage and marginalisation – and identified concrete priorities for action. These priorities reflect a clear and positive vision for how Australian society can build back better. They revolve around putting children’s interests at the centre of Australia’s pandemic response and plan for recovery.
Priorities for action
Most visibly, the pandemic has enormously disrupted children’s learning. Education creates opportunity, and we must do whatever it takes to keep children learning – especially those facing particular barriers to accessing or engaging with education.
All children should be safe – in their homes and in the wider community. Sadly, this is not something that all Australian children can take for granted, and COVID-19 is increasing the risks to many. In a wealthy country like Australia, this is a national shame. We must also focus far more strongly on children’s broader wellbeing, including their psychological, social and emotional health.
Some children’s interests require particular attention. These include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (particularly recent humanitarian migrants), children in detention, and children who were directly impacted by the Black Summer bushfires and are still only in the earliest stages of recovery from that massive community trauma.
Children depend on the structures being in place to support their families and communities. Without access to food, shelter, clothing and other basic rights, no child can thrive. A child’s ability to access these necessities should not depend on their families’ circumstances, but too often does. COVID-19 is making this worse.
And children should be empowered to participate in the response to the pandemic. They have a right to be heard and taken seriously, and to contribute on matters that often affect them more deeply than anyone else. We should be informing children, hearing their views, and engaging with them in finding solutions to today’s and tomorrow’s problems. A valuable end in itself, meaningful participation by children is also a highly effective way of improving the quality of decision-making that affects children’s lives, today and into the future.
Recovery requires looking to the future. The type of society we will be on the other side of the pandemic is in our hands now. Only by putting children and their rights at the centre of our decisions and actions can we truly build back better. In the current circumstances, nothing less will do.
About Save the Children
Save the Children is Australia’s leading child rights organisation, advocating fearlessly for children’s rights and supporting children and their families on the ground in many of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities.
To read Save the Children’s full call to action on COVID-19 and children’s rights in Australia, including more detail about the priorities for action, please click here.
For more information about Save the Children’s policy and advocacy work, please click here.
For more information about Save the Children’s Australian services for children and families, please click here.