According to a recent technical note titled, ‘Protection of Children During the Coronavirus Pandemic’ by the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Crisis, children are now at greater risk of child abuse and neglect as they spend most of their time inside their homes under fear, stress and uncertainty. The measures taken to combat the recent corona pandemic including school closure and restricted activity of the entire family has increased stressors amongst parents. While children struggle with their routine and parental expectations, parents worry about parenting on top of job insecurity and making ends meet. Even though it is commonly believed that children are completely safe at home, parents and family members pose a greater risk for violence as the dynamic of trust, power and control interplay.

The corona pandemic has psycho-social impact on the child including child abuse and neglect, mental health issues with increased feeling of helplessness, isolation, fear and anxiety. Other risks include domestic/interpersonal violence, gender-based violence due to gender-imposed roles, child labour due to increased economic demand on the family, separation, unaccompanied children and social exclusion. Special children including those with disabilities, behavioural problems including attention deficit, hyperactive disorder or those who have psycho-social difficulties such as children living in poverty, slums, institutional care or the streets are at a much higher risk of abuse and neglect during this time.

Currently, most of the government’s efforts are to control the spread of the infection and provide relief and recovery of those affected by corona pandemic. The relief package introduced for daily wagers and the underprivileged would help decrease stress on parents, indirectly decreasing violence on children and women. However, it is important to understand that children should also be a key priority during the COVID-19 response. The Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, 2019 which is a key resource for humanitarian workers alongside the technical note mentioned above, suggests that advocacy with the government, child-protection specific programming and collaboration is vital for protecting children, especially in such special circumstances.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan the child protection system where prevention and management of child abuse cases is done in a systematic, multisectoral way is already missing. Our professionals such as doctors, teachers, social workers and law enforcers are not trained to detect cases and inter and intra departmental collaborations are not in place to manage children in a holistic way.

This already inadequate system for protecting children needs to be ready for the challenge of an increase in child abuse and neglect with decreased identification and reporting. The authorities need to take substantial steps to incorporate protecting children as a part of their response to fighting COVID-19. As parents and children are over exposed to news on digital and social media, with emphasis on fake news, myths and political talk shows along with the constant updates on number of cases and deaths due to the epidemic, the mental health of parents and children is deteriorating. Just like the awareness campaign about social distancing and handwashing, the government needs to start a mass awareness campaign on information dissemination about mental health, self-care, parenting and engaging children in healthy and creative activities during the lockdown and the corona pandemic. Efforts should also emphasise reducing social exclusion and stigma due to the disease and ways in which children with special needs can be protected from further discrimination. All Pakistani channels, including news channels should be obligated to not only spread this information as public service messages but also dedicate a time slot for child programmes. Social media and digital solutions should also be used to disseminate this information.

According to the international guidelines provided by the Alliance, collaboration and coordination across sectors and governments is essential. Clear standards of care, procedures for documentation and referrals and training of professionals dealing with children about child protection measures during a humanitarian crisis need to be addressed. Clear protocols and mechanisms to ensure the safety of the child in case the parent/caregiver is taken away for treatment or the child is separated from the family need to be established.

Child protection specific programmes need to be introduced in which children, adolescents and parents are meaningfully engaged to understand how the lockdown and COVID-19 has affected their lives. These programmes should focus on designing individual and group activities for the wellbeing of children and families, strengthening families and their environment, involving and engaging communities to spread awareness and identifying strategies for vulnerable groups of children, improving case management systems especially in hospital settings and improving systems of alternative care for children especially those who are unsafe in their own homes.

While most of the efforts are directed towards survival, issues such as child protection and development need to be addressed immediately. Before this becomes an after-thought of a disaster, the government and the authorities need to act fast to fight the short and long-term effects of this pandemic on children.