By Kailash Satyarthi
The 74th World Health Assembly commenced on Monday in the backdrop of a raging pandemic that has claimed over 3.5 million lives globally. The World Health Organisation’s invitation to me to address their annual Assembly sent a deeply meaningful message to the United Nations, and the rest of the world – the voice of the millions of children of the world cannot go unheard. We cannot heal from the wreckage of the pandemic, without taking with us the most left behind children.
While the world has suffered as one, we have not suffered equally. The virus has not spared the rich or poor, but the impact of the pandemic has pushed millions of more families more into endless misery and intergenerational poverty. It is the children belonging to the same communities that are forced to work or sell their bodies, who face the worst health outcomes, who are denied an education, and have little or no access to clean water and sanitation. When the pandemic hit us, there were 152 million child labourers in the world. This number is now set to increase by millions as a result of the pandemic.
We need to act now, or risk losing an entire generation of children to the pandemic and its impact. If we refuse to learn from our mistakes, we will lose many more lives, not to the virus but to our own apathy, denial and complicity.
For this, I proposed a set of key recommendations:
Firstly, I challenge the United Nations to stand united. An inter-agency High-Level Group should be set up to prescribe concrete and time-bound for safeguarding our children from the direct or indirect effects of COVID-19.
Secondly, I demanded the waiver of all intellectual property restrictions on COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing, democratisation of technical knowledge, and access to raw material.
I also called on Health Ministers from across the world who were present at the Assembly to create budgeted action plans and constitute task forces to reach the poorest and most marginalised children. Low, middle and high-income countries must work together to reach vaccinations to children, and ensure paediatric facilities, and social protection floors. In addition, it is the responsibility of Health Ministers to counter any amplification of superstition or misinformation around COVID-19 with strong scientific evidence.
Lastly, the COVAX initiative must be inclusive, democratic and well-resourced. Wealthy nations should act and financially support poor countries with a sense of responsibility. If there is one thing we have been forced to learn, it is that till everyone is safe, none of us are safe.
Several Heads of States, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also addressed the virtual event. The urgency and partnership of a united leadership for those left behind was encouraging. It is now up to nations to follow through on their commitments.
In India, we know that as the number of cases surge in rural India and healthcare services cripple under their weight, it is the children who will bear its consequences. Out of school, limital digital access and increasing food insecurity had already aggravated their vulnerability. Now, with entire families being wiped out, what will happen to? They will be trafficked, forced to work, live on the streets or succumb to the virus itself. The pandemic is not only a health or economic crisis – it is a crisis of justice, a crisis of civilisation and a crisis of humanity.
In a letter to the Prime Minister Sh. Narendra Modi recently, and in conversations with the Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan and other ministers, I sought preparedness and response to the rising cases of COVID-19 cases amongst children. Specific recommendations included the creation of a national task force to address the direct and indirect impact of the pandemic on children, accelerated trials for vaccinations for children, dedicated pediatric facilities in every district, and support to childcare institutions with COVID-19 related equipment and assistance. The centre and state governments have announced some encouraging steps in this regard.
If we leave entire populations of children behind, any investment in healthcare will fall through the cracks between one generation and the next. Politics, profits and property can wait, but our children cannot.
Kailash Satyarthi is a child rights activist, Founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan and Nobel Peace Laureate