New Delhi: The COVID-19 lockdown has reduced children’s access to immunisation, altered their eating habits, and left them agitated and anxious, a recent survey shows.
Of 1,102 respondents, mostly parents, guardians or caregivers from 23 states in India, nearly half said their children had no access to routine immunisation; 46% reported a change in their children’s eating habits; 58% said their children could not regularly attend virtual classes; and 53% said their children were more agitated and anxious. The survey was conducted by the NGO Child Rights and You (CRY) and published on May 12, 2020. Around 56% of these respondents were from the Northern states, 22% from Western states, 13% from Southern and 8% from Eastern states.
“Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims,” the United Nations said on April 15, 2020, adding that up to 66 million children across the globe could fall into extreme poverty this year, closure of schools would impact more than 1.5 billion children and malnutrition and child deaths could increase.
Children are the most vulnerable section of society and have been the worst impacted during this pandemic, said Puja Marwaha, chief executive officer, CRY. “In a country where 40% of the total population are children, and the budget allocated for them is just a little over 3% of the entire budget outlay, it is but obvious that they do not feature as the topmost topic of discussion while the country battles a pandemic,” she added.
The survey also found that most social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook were major sources of information regarding COVID-19 for most parents and many were misinformed.
To minimise the adverse impact on children's well-being, the report suggests that uninterrupted health care services, means of learning and internet safety be ensured for children and attempts made to dispel myths and misconceptions regarding the disease and its prevention.
Despite 40% of children below the age of five years not being fully immunised in India, 49% of respondents said that their children, in this age group, were not able to access routine immunisation services during the lockdown. This proportion was the highest in the north of the country, where 63% respondents reported this, followed by the west (39%). Nearly 27% reported non-accessibility of even regular healthcare services for children, which was also the highest in the north (31%), followed by the south (21%).
With access to food being a major challenge, 42% of respondents reported a change in the eating patterns of their children during the lockdown, and one in every four respondents felt their child’s health was affected due to inadequate nutrition. Trends were similar across regions. “A negative change in the eating pattern may influence the nutritional status considerably and thus, the overall development of the child,” said the report.
A majority of the respondents said they received their information regarding COVID-19 from television news (72%), from WhatsApp messages (51%), followed by Facebook (40%). Some 23% said they were using home remedies as preventive measures against the infection, while 18% said they believed that antibiotics would be an effective treatment against the virus.
Under stressed situations and with limited interactions and socialising, children’s mental health is also being impacted. Around 37% of the respondents reported that children’s psychological well-being and happiness have been affected--the highest (51%) in the eastern states--while 53% said their children had become more agitated or anxious.
With the closure of schools, attempts are being made to shift classrooms to the virtual world, access to which is very limited. About 58% respondents said that their children were not able to attend online classrooms regularly. This attendance relies heavily on infrastructure--the 75th National Sample Survey (NSS) 2017-18 indicated that 89.3% of Indian households did not have a computer and 76.2% did not have Internet access.
While 77% respondents reported that their children’s education and learning has been affected during the lockdown, 60% said their children’s extra-curricular opportunities, social lives, playtime and recreation have been affected.
Of those who did have access to the internet, 88% of respondents reported an increase in the child’s online exposure or screen time, with only 43% being able to monitor the same. Increased online presence increases the risks of cyberbullying, hacking, etc., the report said, adding that 22% of respondents were taking no measures to protect their children when online.
Cyberbullying had been on the rise before the pandemic, as IndiaSpend reported on March 13, 2020.
While children are at risk, their caregivers are not prepared financially or otherwise to deal with any adversity presently and in the near future, the survey found--one in four respondents did not have the resources to deal with such a situation and one in 10 were either not sure or not prepared for preventive measures such as self-quarantine or isolation if a family member were to test positive for COVID-19.
- Government must ensure access to uninterrupted healthcare and immunisation services
- Risk communication messages should be standardised to avoid fake news, myths, misreporting and misconceptions
- Given the limited access to the infrastructure for e-learning, the government should consider alternative methods of learning
- Life-skills education should be prioritised and included in the curriculum
- More awareness must be generated and an online safety protocol created to ensure the online safety of children
(Tiwari is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)