UNICEF in the year of coronavirus

Photo: archive of UNICEF

UNICEF works in over 190 countries of the world to save children's lives, to defend their rights, and to help them fulfill their potential. This year its efforts have been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic which has worsened the situation in poverty-stricken regions of the world and created new problems in the developed countries. I spoke to the head of UNICEF‘s Czech branch Pavla Gomba about the challenges that the past year presented.

“2020 is a very exceptional year, and I think that none of us will ever forget it. For UNICEF, it has been particularly challenging because – in addition to old, protracted crises like Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other parts of the world – we are now facing a pandemic that affects us all, regardless of place or age. And of course, the pandemic also affects children, so we are very concerned about it. Just a week ago, we launched the biggest-ever fundraising appeal for the humanitarian crisis around the world.”

Children appear to be less vulnerable to the infection as such, but they are still hit by it. In what other ways is it hitting them?

Pavla Gomba | Photo: Eva Dvořáková,  Czech Radio

“Well, we can see that children in homes with limited internet access or computer equipment have fallen behind in their education or even dropped out of school completely. Schools were closed for an incredible 1 billion, 300 million children around the world. In almost all the countries in which UNICEF works, schools have closed for at least some time. In some countries, they remain closed. And of course, in countries with very limited internet access, there are very few alternatives for continuing children’s education. We are concerned about the ‘lost generation’ of children. In addition to challenges in education, which may be more obvious, we also know from our staff in the field that rates of domestic violence, for example, have increased. Women and children are usually most affected by this. Children and their families in the poorer parts of the world also face economic decline and are very hard hit by the crisis. We can see that families that were on the brink of poverty before have now fallen very deeply into poverty. And again, children are the most affected.”

Did the restrictions imposed on travel and such complicate your work in different parts of the world? Getting computers to children maybe or getting people somewhere?

“Yes, of course. It is also a big challenge for our colleagues in the field to gain access to many parts of the world. Only last week I had a call with my colleagues in Bhutan, which is a country that we support directly from the Czech Republic – we have a very nice project for child monks and nuns living in the monasteries there, and they told me that, for them, it had been extremely difficult because Bhutan is completely closed. It a very small country where everything needs to be imported. We supported projects to build washing facilities and toilets in the monasteries there because hygiene and clean water are extremely important for children. And these projects had to be completely stopped because there are no construction materials in the country, and the workers are very limited during the lockdown. So, many of our projects had to be stopped. Again, this has an indirect impact on children.”

You helped Czech families deal with the various challenges that the pandemic presented, including advising parents on how to talk to their children about Covid-19. What advice did you give?

Photo: Thomas Park,  Unsplash / CC0

“Together with some professionals and child psychologists we developed a set of recommendations on how to speak with children about the pandemic without increasing their trauma, and on how to provide the psychological support that the children need. As the situation developed, we also developed a set of recommendations for children’s online security because, with online education, children are more exposed to risks of online abuse and exploitation. So, there are practical tips for parents on what to say, and, for example, on what to avoid. I think the basic advice is really to listen to your children because what they think and say may surprise you. I think listening is extremely important.”

You drew Czech celebrities into a hygiene campaign called “Namydleno”. What was it aimed at?

“Yes, that was also interesting. For us, it was a very exceptional time because we switched to doing domestic programs for, I think, only the second time since World War II. Usually, our objective is to help children elsewhere, the most vulnerable children. But we did a lot of domestic programs that dealt with the first lockdown in the Czech Republic. This awareness-raising campaign about hygiene standards was one of these programs. We were very happy because it was very easy to approach a lot of celebrities and famous people. Some of them had worked with us before, but some of them were new. We know that we have reached over 25 thousand people on social networks with messages on how to wash hands properly and maintain good hygiene standards to reduce the spread of the virus.”

You conducted a survey on how Czech families have coped in this difficult period. How have they coped, what did you find out? What presented a special problem, for instance?

Pavla Gomba,  photo: archive of UNICEF

“We actually conducted two surveys. The first was just a quick poll of families. But when we saw the results, we thought it was so interesting that we needed to repeat it properly and scientifically with all the surveying standards. So, I think the second survey is even more interesting. We interviewed one thousand Czech children – a representative sample of the child population aged 9 to 13 and then 13 to 17. And there were some surprising results. For example, we asked if the situation in their families is the same, better, or worse. A prevailing opinion at the time was that the lockdown was good for families because they could spend more time together. The opinion of the children slightly opposed that because, even though the majority of children were happy to be at home, the number of children who said that the situation in their family is ‘excellent’ declined by 15 % compared to the previous poll. We also asked children what they missed the most during lockdown, how much they learned at home, and what they learned. Interestingly, a majority said that they spent more time studying, but actually learned less. I think 60 or 62 % of children said that learning online is less effective. So, these are some very interesting results. We were positively surprised when we asked the children if they were helping others. 25 % of girls said that they were involved in helping others, mostly with sewing masks. And 17 % of boys said that they were helping, usually doing grocery shopping for older people, and so forth.”

Do you think that this crisis has made them grow up faster?

Photo: archive of Czech Radio

“I would say so. At least for some part of the child population. We are also part of the project aimed at getting computers to children, because we know that in the Czech Republic there are still some families who lack the basic equipment for online education and simply do not have a laptop at home. I myself participated in one of the deliveries of a notebook to a family. And when we talked to the recipient boy, whose name was Alex, he said that it was extremely difficult for him to study in the spring because he simply could not do his homework on his mobile phone. Since he is from a single-parent family, he also had to take care of his younger brother. He was happy to have an arrangement with the school where the teacher printed some of the homework for him, which he would later bring back. But he also said that it had excluded him and made him different from his group of friends. So, I think that this is another issue that we need to think about when we speak about online education.”

You mentioned domestic violence, children may have seen their parents arguing more. Was there a positive aspect to the changes that the pandemic brought in throwing the family together, or do you see the negative ones?

The evidence is very limited. This is related to the character of domestic violence, which is usually not reported or underreported. But we know that this was also an issue before from the previous youth poll. Up to 60 % of children in the Czech Republic faced some type of violence at home. We also know that the pandemic put extra stress and financial strains on parents. So, we cannot provide precise statistics, as no one has them yet. But when we asked children whether the changes of the pandemic were for the better or for worse, there was a mixed picture. 24 % of children said that the changes were for the better. But almost half, 47 %, said that the changes were for the worse. And when we went a little deeper and asked children what they missed the most, most answered that they missed meeting their friends, going out without a mask, and, surprisingly, that they missed going to school. But we could also see that children missed meeting up with their extended families. And I think that it is very important to provide this psychological stability to children. Children need more than a mother and father. They need to be able to see their friends and cousins. This definitely affected the children as well.”

You said this year you turned your attention to the domestic scene. If you were to enumerate some of them, what are the main problems that Czech children have? Because, you know, they live in a rich society compared with what you see elsewhere in the world where you are helping.

Photo: Wilmer López,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“When we compare Czech children with children in other rich countries, it is very striking. Because we can see that they enjoy relatively good health. Of course, child obesity is a problem, but it is not a major one. So, health is not a problem. Learning and performance at school are also quite okay, compared to many other countries in the OECD region. But what is very striking and makes the Czech children very different from the other countries is mental health and happiness. Usually, Czech children are among the last in mental health and happiness. They are simply not satisfied with their lives. So, there is a disconnect between the fact that there are objectively few reasons for Czech children to be unhappy and the reality that they are far less happy than children in other rich countries.”

Why is that?

“I think it would require a deeper psychological analysis. But it may also be a part of our mentality – and I am saying that with a small question mark – and the general attitude that we have. This also showed in the youth poll that we conducted in 2017, when we could suddenly see a very steep decline in trust among children. So, it is not only happiness but also trust in adults, in parents, in teachers, the government, and so on. But we also have to be a little careful because from surveys in other countries we have seen that children are the happiest in countries with limited access to news and information. It can also be an effect of the information revolution that children are overwhelmed with data and everything available online.”

What do you think would make them happier? You have spoken to them, seen surveys. Is it material things, or is it attention or something else that they lack?

“I think that there would not be a panacea and the same thing for each and every child. But one thing that rates very high is communication. And this is also very interesting when we compare ourselves to other countries. For example, when we ask children which right is most abused in the Czech Republic, the number one answer is usually freedom of expression. But we think that it is not just about their right to express themselves, but also about the right to be listened to. That is why we appeal to parents, teachers, grandparents, and really anybody, to listen to children and to take them seriously. In our polls, collecting the data was very challenging for those who conducted the interviews with children because, for many children, it is the first time in their lives when somebody seriously asked about their opinion and perspective. I think this is something that is lacking in our society – not only to ask, but also to seriously listen to children. You may smile at this, or you may think it is the same everywhere. But that is not the case. In Germany, for example, children said that what they would like the most is the care and attention of parents – for Czech children, it was the freedom of expression. I think that if, as a society, we listen to children more and we engage them in public events and social life more often, then we will all benefit.”