When we think of COVID-19, we think of stoic health workers on the front line. Exhausted eyes, skin bruised, and faces raw from tight masks. We imagine pale, ventilator-covered faces, alone behind glass windows. We think of news headlines, statistics, politicians behind podiums, and spiralling economies.

We do not immediately think of young people. The United Nations* says children are not the face of this pandemic, but they are equally at risk. The “catastrophic” impacts of COVID-19 extend beyond physical health to every aspect of a child’s life: plunging them into poverty, leaving learners behind, and threatening their safety.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all, and it has not spared the children we serve. Compassion’s model of partnering with local churches means we are still able to support vulnerable children during this time of crisis.

Shaniz’s Story

Eight-year-old Shaniz lives in ‘Kosovo’, a district so squalid and dangerous it was named for the war-torn, poverty-ravaged European state. Since COVID-19 hit, her family has been vulnerable; a delicate, terrifying dance between surviving and the dangerous freefall into deeper poverty.

“Coronavirus is like a leopard,” says Shaniz. “It is very dangerous. It knows how to stalk its prey and can cause serious injuries or even death.”

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The physical distancing and quarantine measures adopted to curtail the virus’s spread have decimated the livelihoods of millions of households with children. The world bank predicts that this pandemic could push 71 million people into extreme poverty in 2020. The numbers are so huge, so overwhelming, that it’s hard to make sense of them. Instead, picture Shaniz, bravely comforting her teddy as she endures a situation no child should have to face.

A Mother’s Story

Shaniz’s mother, Anne, works casually in a shop at the markets. Since her husband passed away six years ago, her children have relied upon her sole daily income.

“I had to borrow food and money for rent, leaving me in debt,” says Anne. “The uncertainty of where the next meal is going to come from, when the next rent payment is due, takes a mental toll on me. I live in constant fear.”

Today, her mother has returned to work but it’s a decision she wrestles with. “I do not have the luxury of working from home,” says Anne. “I have heard of people who can work from home. If I don’t physically appear at work, I am not paid. It’s that simple.”

“My biggest fear is being unable to provide for my children in this critical time. I use public transport and that also gets me worried. What if I contract the disease and then bring it back? But if I decide not to work, there is another calamity looming. It is a choice I must contend with every day.”

The New Child Health Crisis

Children like Shaniz are generally spared the worst health impacts of the virus, but the broader effects of the pandemic could reverse years of global child health progress. The United Nations reports that the economic hardship experienced by families could result in hundreds of thousands of additional child deaths in 2020.

This rising malnutrition could have lifelong consequences. Immune systems weakened from lack of nutrients are prone to more infections, which in turn leads to worse nutrition—a vicious cycle. Undernourishment can also impair speech, coordination, and memory. These consequences will outlast the pandemic itself and see children struggling in school.

Education Once Again Impacted

Shaniz has been out of the classroom since March. In Kenya, schools will not open until January 2021—10 months later. “The 2020 school calendar year will be considered lost due to COVID-19 restrictions,” said Kenya’s Education Minister George Magoha.

To contribute to our COVID appeal please click here

Almost every country in the world has imposed school closures since the pandemic began, affecting 1.5 billion children and youth. While two-thirds have introduced national distance learning platforms, broadcast over the radio, television, or the internet, only 30 per cent of low-income countries have done so. But even in countries where distance learning is available, there are children left behind.

Be Brave

Shaniz worries about having to repeat the school year, which is a fear shared by her mother Anne. “Being out of school for the remainder of the year means she will fall behind in her education. Children from more affluent schools are currently engaging in online learning but for us here in the slum, that is simply a luxury that I cannot afford,” says Anne.

The United Nations says the losses will be greatest for children who, triggered by the pandemic, are forced to drop out of school altogether. But for a cheap radio or a borrowed internet connection, it would have been all too easy for children like these to slip through the cracks.

“Leaving her at home with nobody to look after her is another of my biggest fears,” says Anne. “When they are in school or at the Compassion centre, I feel they are safe and cared for.”

Increased Risks To Child Safety

Experts are worried about the children confined to their homes, too. The quarantine and shelter in place measures bring a heightened risk of children witnessing or suffering violence and abuse at home, reports the United Nations.

Abuse by caregivers is the most common form of violence experienced by children* and is more likely to occur while families are at home and experiencing stress and anxiety. At a time of increased need, children no longer have the same access to teachers in whom they can confide.

Compassion’s church partners all over the world are committed to serving vulnerable children in what could be the biggest fight for their lives. “The centre has given us masks, food, and taught us about hygiene and how to keep ourselves safe and healthy,” says Shaniz.

In the bustling streets outside her window in Kosovo, life appears to continue as normal.

Be Brave

“People in Mathare live like COVID-19 is a rumor,” says Anne as she prepares to leave for work. “God is teaching me to be wholly dependent on him. I tell my kids to do their best, hygiene-wise, but to leave the rest to God,” she says, pulling on a face mask.

Shaniz watches on, clutching her teddy.

“I miss how things used to be. Sometimes Mama is very worried, not her happy and chatty self. I think that she is afraid of many things, getting sick, losing her job, and our safety when she is away,” says Shaniz. “God is bigger than coronavirus. We will be brave.”

*Statistics taken from the United Nations Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Children, 15 April 2020

How Compassion’s church partners are at work:

  • Providing urgent food relief and long-term solutions to families suffering hunger
  • Protecting children through regular phone calls and home visits if possible
  • Supporting children with access to medical care
  • Assisting with cash transfers where direct aid distribution is not possible

In the words of eight-year-old Shaniz, from Kenya:

"God is bigger than coronavirus."

To find regular information about the country of Kenya, please click here.

To contribute to our COVID appeal please click here

Words by Zoe Noakes and Amanda Viviers

Photos by Isaac Ogila