by Paulo Pinheiro and Ullrich Bauer
25th May 2020

Children and young people, and their perspectives, have been of secondary importance during the early response to the COVID-19 crisis that aimed at preventing the spread of the virus.  

Although widely regarded as a group at risk within public health, they have not been considered to be a vulnerable group during this time, but were identified to be as risk concerning the spread of the virus to vulnerable groups such as the elderly 

Despite the seemingly protected position they have in terms of morbidity and mortality, children and young people should not be neglected as a target group for health and social policy now, or after the pandemic 

The upheavals in their lives (school closures and home schooling, bans on contact with peers or grandparents, the discontinuation of leisure activities, the shifting of peer relationships into the digital sphere and the lack of child and youth welfare services) have been radical. The ways children face these new complexities are made even more complicated by the communication of epidemiological and clinical information on COVID-19 that portrays them as a group that becomes rarely and mildly diseased. The tacit call for an altruistic, thus selfless and submissive behaviour may therefore be perceived as inconsistent with the commonly taught formula that promotes rational decision-making in pursuit of self-interest and autonomy. 

In addition, young people’s views on the changes in their lives are filtered by their own mood that oscillates between indifference (those who don’t consider themselves to be at risk) and fear or anxiety (those who perceive themselves to be at risk or as a risk) 

The psychosocial burdens of children and adolescents are therefore different from before the crisismore intense and socially unequally distributed. The new burdens also pose a greater challenge to their coping efforts, as children and adolescents are only able to respond in line with learned coping patterns and are more likely to have less access to socially supportive environments. 

The disregard of the children’s and adolescents’ wellbeing has been reflected by the neglect of this issue within recent debates about the re-opening of the schools. They are expected to accept the return to their daily school routines uncritically without their voices having been heard in decision-making processes, without having sufficient certainty about their safety in school life and without having given any consideration to receiving preventive measures, such as testing, that are a crucial part of the overall strategies to re-opening public life. 

The changes induced by the epidemic particularly affect socially vulnerable groups that are unable to counterbalance these burdens, whose own homes offer poor protection, where living conditions are cramped or where the income is precarious. This situation is made even more serious in the case of children and young people who were exposed to a life situation that left them vulnerable before the pandemic began. The imposition of the containment measures is now aggravating and accumulating pre-existing pressures. 

Although a comprehensive picture of how child and youth welfare facilities have been able to maintain their services is not yet available, there are clear warning signs for socially vulnerable groups. Services that are aimed at children and young people must therefore anticipate that any pre-existing and delayed need for care will have to be compensated for, and that new needs will additionally arise due to the new burdens. 

Socially vulnerable children and adolescents must therefore be given priority when it comes to tackling the consequences and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the initial focus on epidemiological and clinical issues, it is now imperative to address the impact of the pandemic and its social costs on the most vulnerable children and adolescents, including their caregivers and communities. 

For any action to be initiated, the following should also be taken into account: 

  • Socially vulnerable children and young people experience and interpret the effects of the pandemic in the light of their own living environments, their milieu-specific backgrounds and social positions, and their views on social acceptance, participation and involvement. 
  • Socially vulnerable children and young people face particular burdens because the provision of services that they used to take advantage of has been reduced. 
  • Socially vulnerable children and adolescents usually live in precarious living conditions which are now further exacerbated by the economic overburdening and associated shortages.  
  • Socially vulnerable children and adolescents are exposed to higher levels of stress at school. The function of schools and child and youth welfare as an early detection system that helps to identify needs for compensation is largely suspended. This means that an important insight and entry into the life worlds of children and young people is blocked. The higher pressures on their families and the needs already existing before the time of the quarantine are likely to become even more intensified. 

Work must begin now to identify needs and develop ways of meeting these challenges 

At the same time, there is no room for any play with the free market. The economic sector shows impressively that crisis-related effects can only be counteracted by targeted management. Consequently, relying on the market forces should under no circumstances be attempted in the field of public social services, as market mechanisms cannot ensure that vulnerable groups are given appropriate support. To mitigate the social costs of the pandemic we need appropriate governance and allocation of services, and the willingness of the public authorities to invest in this field. 

Paulo Pinheiro is Senior Researcher at the Faculty of Educational Science, Bielefeld University, Germany.

Ullrich Bauer is Professor of Socialisation Research and Head of the Centre for Prevention and Intervention in Childhood and Adolescence and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Health Literacy Research at Bielefeld University, Germany.

They are co-editors of the International Handbook of Health Literacy which is available Open Access. Details on the Policy Press website.


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