14 April 2020

Crises and emergencies are known risk factors for children’s health and wellbeing, including their exposure to violence. To curb this there must be an impact assessment that clarifies risks and establishes preventive measures from a child’s perspective, writes Laura Korhonen, centre director of Barnafrid at Linköping University.

Laura Korhonen, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Laura Korhonen, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Head of Department for the National Knowledge Center Barnafrid. Ulrik Svedin

This is an opinion piece, published in Swedish press,
e.g. Dagens samhälle (April 3rd, 2020).

COVID-19 has been classed as a pandemic by the WHO, and Sweden faces a potentially serious crisis. Barnafrid, a national knowledge centre for gathering knowledge on violence against and abuse of children, wants to make society aware of the importance of making the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child the guiding principle in our management of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as regards our children. The convention must not become just another paper tiger – even in turbulent times.

It is important to remember that in the current situation, all children can in the long term be considered as belonging to a risk group. For families that are already socio-economically vulnerable, it can be difficult, especially if different types of payments are delayed. But other groups of children and adolescents can quickly become vulnerable – for instance families where parents face unemployment can suddenly find themselves in a strained situation.
A deep recession caused by the pandemic also constitutes a sizeable risk for children’s health and wellbeing. This has been clearly proven, e.g. by Finnish studies of children who grew up during the financial depression of the 1990s, when there were major reductions in operations and benefits that are important to families. Almost one third of the children who grew up at that time experienced mental ill-health before the age of 25.

The vulnerability of a child is related to the situation of the child’s guardian(s), and the latter’s access to support from their network and from society. Parents who work in essential services will be subject to high workloads, and risk burnout and mental health issues. Extended periods of quarantine in the home can also lead to increased incidence of violence against and abuse of children. Being isolated with few outside contacts means that the child’s vulnerability might not receive attention in the same way.
Children’s vulnerability can be minimised by way of measures that society can implement right now. It is important that the social services and healthcare start up proactive support measures. Measures aimed at preventing a recession are also important in protecting children and securing welfare.

Experiences from previous crises have shown that it is easy to deviate from procedures when there is acute shortage of staff, and that volunteering instead increases. Societal functions must be managed such as to benefit children. For instance, volunteers and substitutes, even during crises, must produce current excerpts from the criminal records registry. With regard to this, we see a need for more prompt and secure handling of requests for and delivery of these excerpts from the Police. Guidelines and procedures that guarantee the safety of children should be followed, and working alone with children should be avoided.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will probably reveal tangible shortcomings and weaknesses in our current societal structures. But the crisis will give us important opportunities for strategic renewal e.g. in healthcare, and to adopt an approach that explicitly considers the child’s perspective in public management. This assumes that society vigorously heightens and clarifies the importance of the fact that the Children’s Convention is now Swedish law.
Sweden is a Pathfinding Country in the global initiative “End Violence Against Children”, which means we are expected to set a good example by tackling the pandemic in our country in a child-friendly way, and to be involved at the international level.
The COVID-19 crisis can have far-reaching consequences for children’s futures. Foresight, planning and impact assessment from a child’s perspective are thus necessary. The challenges are many, but good decision-making now will pave the way for a better future when the pandemic subsides.

On behalf of Barnafrid,

Laura Korhonen is professor of child and adolescent psychiatry,
and centre director of Barnafrid at Linköping University.


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