In studies and media coverage of the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns the world over, their economic impact has been  the main theme. Important and critical as the economic impact is, especially when the lockdown is prolonged, there are other equally  critical aspects which have not got sufficient exposure in the public domain. This is the impact of prolonged lockdowns on children and adolescents.

The population of children and adolescents is quite large. According to UNICEF, there are more than 2.2 billion children in the world who constitute approximately 28% of the population. Those aged between 10 to 19 years (the adolescents) make up 16 % of the world’s population.

According to Indian researchers Shweta Singh and her colleagues, nationwide closures of schools and colleges have negatively impacted over 91% of the world’s student population.

“The home confinement of children and adolescents is associated with uncertainty and anxiety which are attributable to disruption in their education, physical activities and opportunities for socialization. Absence of the structured setting of the school for a long duration results in disruption in routine, boredom and lack of innovative ideas for engaging in various academic and extracurricular activities,” they say in their paper entitled: Impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on mental health of children and adolescents: A narrative review with recommendations.

Shweta Singh observes that under lockdown, children become more clingy, attention-seeking and more dependent on their parents due to the long term shift in their routine. She goes on to warn that children might resist going to school after the lockdown and might face difficulty in establishing rapport with their mentors after the schools reopen.

“Based on the questionnaires completed by the parents, children experienced disturbed sleep, nightmares, poor appetite, agitation, inattention and separation-related anxiety. Due to prolonged confinement at home, children tended to use the internet and social media much more, which predisposed them to use the internet compulsively, and to access objectionable content. These could increase their vulnerability to bullying or abuse,” she points out.

One in every 6 children within the age group of 2-8 years have one or the other neurodevelopmental, behavioral or emotional difficulty. Children with special needs such as those suffering from autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy, learning disability, developmental delays and other behavioral and emotional difficulties, encounter peculiar challenges during lockdowns.

“There is an aggravation in symptoms due to the enforced restrictions and the unfriendly environment. They face difficulties in following instructions, understanding the complexity of the pandemic situation and doing their own work independently. With the closure of special schools and day-care centers, these children lack access to resource material, peer group interactions, and opportunities for learning and developing key social and behavioral skills in time. These may lead to regression to past behavior,” Shweta Singh warns.

Furthermore, children with autism find it very difficult to adapt to the changing environment. They become agitated and exasperated when anything is rearranged or shifted from its normal position. They might show an aggravation of their behavioral problems and indulge in self-harm.

“It is a huge challenge for parents to handle autistic children due to lockdowns. The suspension of speech therapy and occupational therapy sessions could have a negative impact on their skill development and the achievement of the next milestone, because it is difficult for them to learn through online sessions, as the UNICEF pointed out,” Singh adds.

Referring to the impact of social inequality, she says: “Underprivileged children face acute deprivation of nutrition and overall protection. In India, which has the largest child population in the world with 472 million children, lockdowns have significantly impacted 40 million children from poor families. These include children working on farms in the rural areas, children of migrants and street children. An increasing number of poor and street children now have no source of income, making them vulnerable to abuse and mental health issues.  The Deputy Director of ‘CHILDLINE 1098’ India, has said that India saw a 50% increase in calls received on helplines for children since the lockdown began.”

Lack of jobs and income in poor families could manifest in violence against their children. Parental violence can make the child vulnerable to depression and anxiety.

Economic Decline 

The problems of children and adolescents stem from the sharp economic decline brought about by prolonged lockdowns. In South Asian and Sub-Saharan countries, which lack social security systems, daily wage earners and workers in the unorganized sector have sunk further into poverty due to loss of jobs, livelihoods and incomes during prolonged lockdowns. Businesses have faced loss of production and market, and governments have lost valuable sources of revenue. Hoarding has created shortages and a hike in prices.

The Sri Lankan economy has been badly hit by the virus. According to the World Bank’s Sri Lanka Development Update 2021, the Lankan economy contracted by 3.6% in 2020, “the worst growth performance on record.” With jobs lost and earnings reduced, poverty had increased from 9.2% in 2019 to 11.7% in 2020 as per its yardstick.

In September this year, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa told parliament that due to COVID lockdowns, government’s revenue had fallen between Rs.1500 billion and Rs.1600 billion from the estimated amount. Foreign exchange reserves plunged to US$ 2.8 billion, which in turn led to a 9% depreciation of the rupee against the dollar over the past year, making imports more expensive.

The main source of government income has been the duty on vehicle imports, but it had banned import of vehicles in the past year and a half because of difficulties in finding foreign exchange. This meant that revenue from customs duty dropped to a low level. Lockdowns also caused reduced excise and VAT collections. Revenue from direct and indirect taxes came down by 75% to 80% on a daily basis. The Minister warned that the drop in tourism revenue could be anywhere between US$ 4 billion and US$ 5 billion.

While incomes declined, government spending increased substantially because of relief measures. And salaries and allowances had to be paid to government employees though most were not working.

Prof. Ranjan Ray and Dr. Sanjesh Kumar of Monash University, in their paper written for the Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability (CDES), say that the worst-hit by the pandemic and the lockdowns were not people in advanced countries but those in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. In the latter, nearly 9 out of 10 people joined the ranks of the poor because of prolonged lockdowns.

In the case of developing countries, a fiscal stimulus of around 15% of the GDP would have wiped out any downward movement of growth rates to negative territory, but these economies showed a fiscal stimulus of less than 5%, Ray and Kumar point out.  Inadequate vaccination and relief measures made lockdowns both burdensome and useless.

Long lockdowns avoidable

In a March 2021 paper entitled: Lockdown fatigue: The declining effectiveness of lockdowns Patricio Goldstein of the Harvard University Center for International Development, says that the world over, experience has been that short-term but strictly enforced lockdowns have been more effective and medically fruitful than longer lockdowns.

Longer ones have been difficult to enforce, and have caused greater public misery. They have also generated apathy about the viral threat. Food and livelihood issues take precedence over issues of health and life. Lockdown restrictions are brazenly flouted in a desperate search for means to keep body and soul together.



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