The machinery of modern life has jammed under the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet in many parts of the developing world, the virus is only beginning to take hold. So just how badly will the world's most vulnerable children and their families be affected?
22 May, 2020
Deserted streets and silent highways. Shuttered shops. Empty schools.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought the machinery of modern life to a halt.
In Australia, the worst health effects have largely been avoided by social distancing and strict lockdown measures. Even so, more than 100 deaths, record unemployment, prolonged isolation and the ever-present risk of a second wave show just how damaging the virus has been.
Yet as we finally take the kids to the playground or visit our favourite café for the first time in weeks, a glance at the news shows that other countries are doing it even tougher.
Grim stories from Europe and northern America describe overwhelmed hospitals and mass graves.
Now, experts say that the world's least developed nations are headed for an even greater catastrophe.
What's the situation in the developing world?
As far back as the Black Death that rampaged through Asia and Europe in the 14th century, pandemics have not created inequality so much as revealed existing fault-lines in society.
The people at greatest risk are usually those already marginalised—the poor and minorities who face discrimination in ways that damage their health or limit their access to medical care.
Not enough tests, not enough beds
It's very difficult to be certain how many people in the developing world have been affected already. Many countries don't have the resources to conduct enough testing to get an accurate picture.
Even so, authorities are warning that healthcare systems will be quickly overwhelmed. A study from the Imperial College London was reported as saying that without strong action, as many as 40 million people could be killed by the virus this year.
As with so many other disaster situations, it will be the poorest families who suffer most.
A global pandemic requires a global response from the Church—because Jesus' mandate was to love our neighbours and stand up for the least of these.
So please, if you're in a position to do so, give today to help protect children from the devastation of COVID-19.
Millions of lives are at risk
Case numbers are finally beginning to plateau and drop in some of Europe's worst-hit nations. But new hotspots are developing around the globe, in countries where the doctor-to-patient ratio is low and infrastructure is fragile.
Brazil is rapidly climbing the curve of new COVID-19 infections, but the alarming number of new cases doesn't tell the full story.
Researchers say Brazil may have 12 times more cases than have been reported—and the peak of the wave is still to come. The mayor of São Paulo, the country's biggest city, recently warned that its health system is already on the brink of collapse.
For Elias, coordinator of Compassion's Barnabé survival project in Canhotinho, Brazil, the work of protecting the health of the most vulnerable just got much harder.
"We are trying to work twice as hard and call the survival project mothers more often," he says. "We know that at this moment, the project support is even more important. We seek to advise mothers on hygiene, protection and social isolation."
Mexico's case numbers are rising dramatically and some hospitals have been forced to turn patients away as their beds are full.
Local Compassion centre staff in some regions of Mexico saw the restrictions coming and managed to organise the children’s regular health checkups before their communities were restricted.
Maria Salinas, whose son, Anderson, is registered with Compassion in Paredón, on the Mexican coast, says that's given her peace of mind.
"I feel how Compassion is helping us in these challenging times. Only God knows what would have happened if Compassion never came to the community. I am very thankful for the support to keep Anderson healthy."
And while reported cases across Africa have been comparatively low so far, and the World Health Organisation has praised the continent's response, the number of cases is beginning to climb.
The virus has gained a foothold in every region from Egypt to South Africa, Ghana to Kenya, and the WHO predicts that more than 250 million people across the continent will get the virus.
After the lockdown, the crash
COVID-19 is not simply a health crisis. Widespread lockdown and the resulting economic turmoil have wreaked havoc on rich nations.
But their full effects are still to be seen in nations with fragile health systems and frayed social security nets.
This combination of health impacts and serious economic upheaval threatens to push tens or even hundreds of millions of people into poverty, according to the World Bank.
The majority of them are rural workers, and families living in city slums, in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
So what makes the developing world so vulnerable?
Millions of people already struggle to access hospitals or medical treatment. They can't pay hospital bills or buy medicine.
Add to that a pandemic that will add new stresses to the system—thousands more patients, a lack of ventilators and specialists—and many of the poorest citizens will be unable to seek the treatment they need even if they believe they have contracted the COVID-19 virus.
Meanwhile, malaria, rising malnutrition, tuberculosis and many other diseases complicate and compound the devastation.
When 18-month-old Bion (name changed) was diagnosed with tuberculosis, her father was almost relieved—because it was not COVID-19. But he still had no access to the medicine his daughter needed to fight the deadly threat of TB. Fortunately, his local church in Indonesia was there to help.
"Physical and social distancing policy should be implemented but we cannot let this child suffer without any intervention," says Compassion centre staff member Laksono.
"No matter what, Bion and other children with medical conditions should be treated and prioritised. This is our responsibility to make sure that they are safe and healthy."
Job stability and food supply
Up to 89 per cent of sub-Saharan workers live on a daily wage. And when you can't go to work, you can't buy food for the day. It's often that simple.
That same set of circumstances has gripped countries through Asia as well, from Thailand to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and others. Already, families are facing the choice between breaking curfews and risking their own health to find work—or staying home and going hungry.
Martha Fedelis, the mother of a Compassion assisted child in Arusha, Tanzania, is grateful for the support her local church has given her.
Still she says the opportunity to work at her street-market stall is a lifeline—and not just for her. The entire street relies on her stall for their daily food.
Every day she walks to a larger marketplace to restock, despite the crowds and risk to her own health.
"The [town] market is always full, and everyone in it is trying to provide for their families. If they close it, a lot of families will starve."
"We know it is dangerous but everyone tries to protect themselves. I make sure I wash my hands every time I touch something. Thankfully, every vendor now has a bucket of water and soap."
Housing and sanitation
When you live in an urban slum community, social distancing is impossible. Often, multiple generations live together in very small homes, and that leaves young and old alike more susceptible to sickness.
The more common disasters haven't gone away because of COVID-19.
Floods, earthquakes, typhoons, droughts and famine continue to drive hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
And how can you wash your hands regularly when you have little access to water? In some communities, a single tap is shared by hundreds of families.
Satassa, a local centre director in Burkina Faso, explains that children are made aware of the importance of washing their hands to stay healthy from their first days in the program.
But water is hard to find, especially in a pandemic. So churches came up with a creative solution.
"Because of inflation, most caregivers in our community can't afford a handwashing facility. Even buying a bar of soap is a challenge for families living on less than a dollar per day.
"We stepped in to support caregivers to create their handwashing system at home using plastic jerry cans. They bring their jerry cans to the centre and a plumber fastens a tap for free. It is our duty to provide children with soap. We must keep each child protected."
The long-term fallout
The immediate challenges are stark.
Yet even after the short-term shock has passed, the economic, social and spiritual impacts of COVID-19 will likely last for years.
Advocates warn that practices such as child marriage will explode in the coming years as a result of the pandemic.
Even female genital mutilation could make a resurgence, with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) warning that an extra 2 million girls worldwide could be subjected to FGM in the next decade.
All of these issues and many more have their root in the despair and brokenness of poverty.
Millions more children will struggle for even the basic necessities of life. Enough food to eat. A roof overhead. A chance to learn and live with meaning and hope. A place to learn how special they are in God's eyes.
Perhaps the biggest threat these children face is that, as wealthy nations like Australia slowly emerge from this strange season, they will again be left behind.
How can the Church respond?
A global pandemic requires a response from the global Church.
And what a response we've seen!
In every nation, the Church is rising to care for the most vulnerable children.
Local churches on the front lines are calling registered children to encourage them and pray for them.
They are working to ensure the children's safety and wellbeing, providing food packages and medical support, even online Bible studies and education resources where possible.
And the Church around the world is standing together as one.
To pray and serve and love each other. To give generously and see lives turned around and given new hope.
Together, we can see millions of children through the worst of COVID-19.
See playgrounds once again packed with children, running and playing. See classrooms full, homes restored, livelihoods flourishing.
See churches erupting with songs of praise and gratitude—a million testimonies and more of God's faithfulness and goodness, and the strength of His people.
For God have us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. —2 Timothy 1:7 ESV
Senior Vice President of Global Program at Compassion International Sidney Muisyo says that everything comes back to the mandate on the Church to love and support those in need.
"We believe the local church is the hands and feet of Jesus, bringing His love and grace into people's lives, especially in this difficult season," says Sidney.
"To our sponsors: We will continue to pray with you and for you, and to do absolutely everything we can to ensure that every sponsored child is loved, protected, and receives critical support at this time."
The message could not be clearer.
Together, we won't let COVID-19—or poverty—win.
We will rise as one and help vulnerable children now.
Please, stand with local churches and Christians around the world. Give today to help protect children from the devastation of COVID-19.
Words by Richard Miller
Photos by Eric D. Lema, Compassion International and Emily Turner
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