Research findings: Not all children are accessing vital services due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Skopje, 1 June 2021: While government COVID-19 socio-economic measures have mitigated the impact on extreme child poverty, more children are living below the average standard of living. Furthermore, disruptions to services in social protection and education and decreased demand in health services are putting children at further risk as the pandemic lingers – according to an updated analysis of social and economic effects on children, published today by UNICEF, conducted by Finance Think and funded by USAID.

“Children are not the face of this pandemic, but they are among its biggest victims. With over a year of lockdowns, empty classrooms, disrupted services, losses to family livelihoods, children’s lives have changed in profound ways. All children, of all ages, are affected, but for the most vulnerable the pandemic and its socio-economic consequences have exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities and adversity. Without additional investment in measures to restore access to vital services in protection, education and health, the pandemic can have a lifelong impact on children,” said Patrizia Di Giovanni, UNICEF Representative.

The updated study on the social and economic impact of COVID19 on children is a follow up to the analysis conducted in 2020. The new research highlights that:

  • The relaxation of the guaranteed minimum allowance eligibility criteria and the two one-off financial support payments contributed to reducing extreme poverty (i.e. households living on less than USD1.9 a day) by one third. Still, it is worrying that more than a quarter [27%] of families who became eligible to take advantage of the guaranteed minimum allowance during the pandemic are not utilising the assistance. Furthermore, projections show the percentage of children living in households whose standard of living is significantly below the national average (relative poverty) has increased from 27.8 per cent before the pandemic to 32.4 per cent. This puts an additional 19,000 children in North Macedonia below the relative poverty line – which is higher compared to the July 2020 estimate of 16,000 children.
  • The number of reported cases of violence against children increased immediately after the outbreak of the pandemic, by 14.7 percent in the second quarter of 2020. During the third and fourth quarters of 2020, the number of reported cases in the centres for social work compared to those reported to the police decreased significantly. The research highlights that while this decrease may be related to the relaxation of the movement restrictions, it is likely that it also manifests due to the disrupted provision of prevention services by social workers during the pandemic.
  • A survey of paediatricians showed a decrease of workload during COVID-19 predominantly due to the fear of parents and children to contract COVID-19 while visiting medical practices. This led to a significant reduction of health services delivery to children in the areas of diagnostics, treatment of chronic illnesses, primary healthcare and mental health.
  • The impact of movement restrictions, quarantines, switching to distance learning and reduced socialization has negatively affected children’s mental wellbeing. Teachers – 25 per cent in secondary schools and 18 per cent in primary schools – noticed increased anxiety and stress among pupils with the switch to remote learning.
  • The national distance learning platform has contributed to the systematization and unification of the educational process for students attending classes online. However, the problem of access to education persists, especially for vulnerable groups, such as children at risk of poverty, Roma children and children with disabilities.
  • The opening of preschools has enabled many parents and children to receive organized early learning support. However, many children still remain at home and parental support needs to be ongoing to provide high quality early learning support.
  • While government spending on children increased during the pandemic, it increased at a rate lower than the increase in total government spending.

“Although the government has designed six packages of measures to deal with the social and economic consequences of the pandemic, they have rarely been focused on children. This was reflected in the budget planning in 2021. Although children received additional protection through the support that was provided for the preservation of jobs and the income of the parents, the experience of COVID-19 shows us that we should consider adjusting the system so that it can protect the most vulnerable children from future shocks.” said Blagica Petreski from Finance Think, one of the authors.

The findings in the new research call for shifting policy efforts to restore access to services to reduce the risk of children being among the biggest victims of the pandemic:

First, reopening schools must be a priority. Schools not only provide space for learning; they also provide delivery platform for essential protection and mental health services. With COVID-19 vaccines available, additional efforts are needed to ensure teachers and school staff receive the vaccine, so they are protected from the virus and able to hold in person classes. The situation also calls for increasing investment to build schools capacities to respond to mental health, and ensure schools are resilient to future disruptions by further strengthening systems to deliver remote learning and reducing the digital divide especially for the most vulnerable, including for children with disabilities.

Second, the situation also calls for efforts to fully restore social protection, including violence prevention services. Ensuring that social workers receive the COVID-19 vaccine, will enable them to conduct needed community outreach and restore full access to prevention services.

Third, to overcome the risks associated with postponing necessary health checks of children, there is a need to introduce additional measures to increase public confidence and demand for services including support for mental health; as well as investment in building capacities for tele-health services to introduce efficiencies and ensure the health system is resilient to future disruptions.

Fourth, to address the underutilization of cash benefits, additional efforts to improve outreach, information and support to complete the application process is needed to ensure all eligible families benefit from the assistance.

Fifth, psychosocial support must remain available, affordable and accessible. This includes building the capacities of professional support staff within schools and focusing them on provision of guidance and counselling to pupils and parents experiencing emotional and mental health difficulties.