“Our life-saving work to provide children with health, education, nutrition and protection has never been more critical.” – UNICEF Executive Director

“Never before have we witnessed educational disruption on such a scale... Partnership is the only way forward.” – UNESCO Director-General

15 April 2020 — As COVID-19 continues its march around the world, the United Nations is working to reduce its negative impact on children, who are facing new health risks, disruptions to their education and increased exposure to domestic violence and hunger.

Some of the figures speak volumes about children’s vulnerability: School shutdowns now affect over 91 per cent of the world’s students. Over 117 million children in 37 countries could miss out on life-saving measles vaccines, and 32 per cent of children globally who show symptoms of pneumonia are not taken to a health care provider.

Moreover, of the nearly 31 million children worldwide who were forcibly displaced in 2018, 13 million were refugees, 1 million were seeking asylum and 17 million were displaced within their own countries by violence and conflict.

In a majority of countries, more than 2 in 3 children are subjected to violent discipline by caregivers. Millions are at heightened risk of harm, as their lives move increasingly online while on lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

United Nations System Response

Amid the epic challenges presented by COVID-19, the Organization is calling for hope and global solidarity to better protect children.

“Education cannot stop,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In response to COVID-19, UNESCO has launched Global Education Coalition to support countries in scaling up their best distance learning practices and reaching children and youth who are most at risk.

Through its #LearningNeverStops campaign, UNESCO is also calling on students, teachers and parents to share their stories about how they are coping and continuing to learn, as a way to inspire others and give hope.

A mother wearing a black abayia feeds a child some rice by hand. The child is in a disheveled state and is sparsely dressed. In the background are more children and a man.

“Never before have we witnessed educational disruption on such a scale,” said Ms. Azoulay. “Partnership is the only way forward.”

For its part, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is rolling out various support programmes.

“Our life-saving work to provide children with health, education, nutrition and protection has never been more critical,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “With millions of children uprooted, affected by wars, dying from preventable causes, out of school, or missing out on essential vaccines, the need for support has never been greater.”

UNICEF is appealing to donors to provide $651.6 million to scale up its COVID-19 response, allowing the Fund to provide lifesaving information about handwashing and sanitation, supply personal protective equipment - gowns, masks, goggles and gloves - distribute emergency education kits, offer distance learning opportunities and support affected children with psychosocial counselling.

UNICEF has identified several vulnerable situations facing children during the pandemic and is calling for swift global action in six areas.

First and foremost, international efforts are needed to keep children healthy. In the poorest parts of the world, children in need of essential services – to protect against pneumonia, malaria and diarrhoea, for example – are at risk of not receiving them. As health systems stretch, infants and children will lose their lives to preventable causes.

In addition, efforts must be made to reach vulnerable children with water, sanitation and hygiene. Some children are cut off from such resources because they live in remote areas or in places where water is untreated or polluted. Others lack access to facilities because they are without a home, living in a slum or on the street.

A mosaic of photos of children and adults with superimposed text that says: Tell UNESCO your story #LearningNeverStops.

Children must also be protected from violence, exploitation and abuse. As communities are disrupted, children already at risk of facing these dangers will find themselves even more vulnerable. Social and economic turmoil will heighten girls’ risk of early marriage, pregnancy and gender-based violence. With isolation, children facing violence in the home or online will be farther from help.

Children who are refugees, migrants or affected by conflict also need help. Even in the absence of a pandemic, refugee children, migrant children and children affected by conflict face unspeakable threats to their safety and wellbeing. For many, access to basic health care and facilities is extremely limited, while cramped living conditions make social distancing unfeasible.

On the issue of hunger, the United Nations is developing battle plans to keep children fed and nourished.

Where schools are closed, the World Food Programme (WFP) is working with Governments and partners to identify alternatives to ensure that children and their families continue to receive food and nutritional support. This includes providing take-home rations in lieu of meals, home delivery of food and provision of cash or vouchers.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is working to prevent COVID-19 from wreaking havoc on the populations already facing hunger. “Well-nourished citizens in wealthy countries may weather a couple of months without some fresh or imported produce, but in the developing world, a child malnourished at a young age will be stunted for life,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu.

How Can Kids Fight COVID-19?

Two women are sitting on the ground, leaning on the wall, with a child in their lap.

As for how children themselves can fight COVID-19, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings published a book titled, “My Hero is You.”

This new story book aims to help children understand and come to terms with COVID-19, with the help of a fantasy creature. Ario explains how children can protect themselves, their families and friends from coronavirus and how to manage difficult emotions when confronted with a new and rapidly changing reality.


See also Education and COVID-19: UN helps children continue their learning

Additional resources

Statement by the UN Secretary General on the launch of the Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on children 

Agenda for Action: 8 United Nations entities launch roadmap to protect children from violence in response to COVID-19 and statement by leaders of UN entities 

In the response to COVID-19, children are key and part of the solution