The Vulnerability of Children and Young People during COVID-19
In this article, Tristan Johnson considers the vulnerability of Children and Young People during a pandemic.
With any great change to society, opportunism and desperation rears it’s ugly head. COVID-19 gives rise to both these factors, as the context in which children live changes due to the advice from governments and as families begin to respond to dealing with the virus.
Considering the Socio-Ecological impact of COVID-19 gives some clues as to where these issues begin.
Lack of ability to access services at a time of crisis.
Family separation – what once were protective factors are now removed due to social distancing.
Lack of access to education systems or other places away from potential abuse.
Increased exposure to environments which can cause psycho-social stress.
Lets break that down further and consider child protection risks:
Physical and Emotional Maltreatment:
Due to measures such as self-isolating, children become more susceptible to reduced levels of supervision. As schools and academic establishments close, it places children at risk of reduced levels of supervision and increases the risk of young carer stress where the child is a caregiver. There are the additional pressures of households where a child is required to act in the manner of an adult (consider the risk associated with maintaining hygiene during a pandemic if you are a child).
Due to decreased levels of supervision, the risk and likelihood of child sexual and physical abuse increases.
Gender Based Violence:
As child supervision is decreased, the risk of sexual exploitation increases. There is the risk of increased contact with strangers who bring goods in/out of the house to support the family. There is the risk of girls being given what are perceived to be ‘female’ tasks in support of the household such as caring for the sick or doing household tasks.
This is set against increased obstacles to reporting incidents and seeking medical attention, and pressures on existing child protection services due to a potential decrease in staffing. Some young people may also additionally be at risk of Forced Marriages and Child Sexual Exploitation / Childhood prostitution as families cope with the new economic positions.
Mental Health/ Psychosocial distress:
There is the risk to children regarding the impact of isolation either at home, or in places of treatment. This is further compounded if the child experiences the death or illness of a loved one (combined with fear and lack of understanding about the disease itself and what is happening).
Children and parents/care givers who have pre-existing mental health problems may struggle to access support services and treatment which can lead to a worsening of mental health conditions.
Separation from family:
Children also risk being separated from family members who may have to self-isolate to stop the spread of the disease. In some cases this can mean that the child becomes the head of the family and has to take on care giving responsibility for other/younger siblings.
Risk of Social Exclusion / Legal issues
As food shortages begin, the effect on the ability of the child to support the family decreases which may increase the risk of the child resorting to measures which conflict with the law in an attempt to support. There is the obvious reduction of positive role models and increased risk of unlawful behaviours.