Guest post by UNICEF’s Laurence Chandy
One salvation of the COVID-19 pandemic is that children have been largely spared from severe infections. Yet the broader effects of the crisis on the young have already caused untold harm and are now poised to reset the forces that have driven progress for the world’s children since the start of this century.
Children, especially the most vulnerable among them, have disproportionately borne the collateral damage from the policies and behaviors that the pandemic has induced over the last year.
This includes the unprecedented shuttering of schools worldwide, resulting in over a billion children being sent home and jeopardizing their learning and future productivity.
It also includes the largest increase in extreme poverty worldwide since modern records began, with grave consequences for child hunger.
And we have seen the temporary suspension of immunization campaigns for children, setting back coverage rates some 25 years.
So what next for the world’s kids?
A surprise global pandemic is yet another reminder of the challenges of predicting the future. Nevertheless, taking a few steps back offers a broader perspective on the more persistent forces shaping children’s lives. From this vantage point, we can recall the two decades before the pandemic – a period of historic progress for children – and the two overarching forces that shaped those years.
The first force was a convergence in living standards, driven by rapid economic growth in developing countries. This era of convergence represents a stunning reversal of the pattern from earlier decades when rich countries consistently forged ahead. The salience of this trend for children is self-evident: developing countries contain most of the world’s children and most of those whose basic needs are not met.
Income growth in the developing world has surely been uneven, both within and between countries, and it has slowed down in the last few years. But it has driven far-reaching progress for the young: less hunger, fewer coping behaviors like child marriage and child labour, and more child services, whether funded directly from households or by the state.
The second force has been improvements in children’s lives that were achieved irrespective of gains in income but rather from the diffusion of knowledge – whether embedded in technologies, policies or norms. Examples include the use of antiretroviral drugs that have almost ended the transmission of HIV/AIDS during childbirth, the widespread adoption of antimalarial bed-nets, demand for gender equality in access to schools, and many more.
Such progress has profound consequences. A child living in a country with an average income of $5,000 a year is a quarter less likely to suffer from stunting compared to a child in a country at that same income level 20 years ago, and benefits from one and a half more years of schooling.
Again, these improvements have not been recorded everywhere or evenly. And it should be noted that many advances in knowledge have also played a role in raising incomes: for instance, the rapid expansion of antiretroviral therapy in the early 2000s has been estimated to explain about a third of Africa’s “growth miracle”. But my point here is that these advances also drove improvements in children’s lives independently and in places where incomes remained flat or fell.
What may come of these two forces in the medium-term is impossible to know with certainty, but our supposition is that COVID-19 will leave its mark.
We anticipate an end to the era of convergence and more meager gains in living standards given the economic headwinds facing many developing countries as they navigate an exit from COVID-19.
Poorer countries are last in the queue for vaccines, after rich countries swept up the first batches through advance purchase agreements. Faced with a higher cost of borrowing than rich countries, they have fewer means to support households and businesses while they continue to battle the pandemic, and to stimulate their economies’ recoveries when the virus has been contained. Some face the risk of a fully-fledged sovereign debt crisis. Many others will bear the weight of additional shocks while they continue to wrestle with COVID-19, posing a test to the stability of their governments, economies and societies. The global community has grown accustomed to annual reports of falling world poverty – we should be prepared to hear fewer of those.
At the same time, we see the possibility of further – and even accelerated – improvements in children’s lives made possible through the proliferation of knowledge.
One unambiguously positive legacy of the pandemic, inspired by the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines, is optimism for the potential for further medical breakthroughs in tackling the global burden of disease, including those that affect children such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and Zika. This optimism captures not just an emotional reaction to the achievements of scientists, but the demonstrable efficacy of new vaccine platforms, and new public-private-academic partnerships that have enabled these discoveries.
Such optimism could spread beyond health to accelerate the pace of innovation across multiple domains: energy, education, food production and beyond. We also anticipate an expanded and more active role for the state in establishing a social floor and funding research and development. This mirrors a similar phenomenon after the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, when many countries embraced the concept of socialized medicine and created or revamped health ministries.
Whether our prognostication proves to be right or wrong, children’s futures are not destiny. They’re there to be fought for—and, as we saw in the global wave of protest movements that preceded the pandemic, children themselves are increasingly looking to participate in the struggle. COVID-19 has simply helped re-draw the battle lines.
This post is a summary of a broader outlook assessment by UNICEF’s Office of Global Insight and Policy. Download and read Prospects for children: a global outlook through 2025 here.