The pandemic is having a long-term impact on the most vulnerable children and families across the countries we work in. While wealthy countries are undertaking national vaccine rollouts, and developing plans to return to normal life, the future is less certain elsewhere – and especially for the most vulnerable children. There will be no ‘return to normal’ for the many of the communities we support. There is no furlough scheme in these countries. Lockdowns and recessions mean that many families have lost their income and are now facing starvation.
While the countries we work in are starting to receive vaccines, their rollout will be much slower. And marginalised communities may be left out completely.
DRC has reported 26,000 cases. However, testing is limited and expensive so many cases go undetected. In Goma, the largest city in the area we work in, there is no testing facility, so it is difficult to understand how prevalent the disease is in the community. Many families can’t afford masks to protect themselves and others, and misinformation is rife, making the situation even more difficult.
Schools have just reopened, having been told to shut again in mid-December. Through lockdown, the schools we support kept in touch with children and their families. Because of this, 99% of the children we support returned to schools when they opened again. However, among other schools attendance has dropped by a third.
DR Congo has now received 1.7million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine with North Kivu, the area that we work in, being one of four priority provinces.
Cases are also rising in Kenya, where they have reported 109,000 cases. Restrictions are still in place, including an overnight curfew which has been extended.
Schools were shut in March last year, but were able to reopen in January after ten months. However, extracurricular activities aren’t allowed – meaning the after-school sessions we support for street-connected children can’t take place.
Our partner in Mombasa, Glad’s House Kenya, are also facing difficulties in their work with children on the streets. A lot of public spaces have been closed off, meaning it’s more difficult to safely engage children and young people.
Kenya has also received vaccine doses through the COVAX scheme, with 1 million arriving in early March.
Rwanda has reported 19,551 cases, having seen a recent rise in 2021.
In response, the government has put the capital, Kigali, into lockdown. Schools have been closed, while there is also a curfew in place. However outside of Kigali, schools have remained open after reopening in December – including the Deaf School we support in the Nyabihu district. Sadly, we’re beginning to see the impact of prolonged school closures. Children with disabilities, who were unable to access learning for ten months, have lost the progress made in their education over the last few years. The lockdown has hit poor families hard, and with many struggling to put food on the table, children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy are once again being seen as a ‘burden’.
Rwanda has received 340,000 doses of the vaccine and is planning to vaccinate frontline health workers and high-risk groups first.
Ghana has seen a resurgence of cases in 2021, having now reported 84,465 cases.
Schools faced nine months of closure but opened at the end of January with new COVID-19 protocols of social distancing and mask-wearing. This also applied to the early childhood development centres we support, where street-connected children are able to access inclusive education and support.
Ghana was the first country in Africa to receive doses of the COVID-19 vaccine through the COVAX scheme and has begun administering 600,000 doses to government officials and health workers.
Uganda has reported 40,000 cases. However, the real number is likely to be much higher as many people fear that if they test positive they will be sent to hospital, which is very expensive. So many people with symptoms are only being tested if they become very unwell. A day in ICU in Uganda would cost the patient around 2.5 million Ugandan shillings (£500), which is unaffordable to most.
Schools have now reopened to some children, having been closed for almost a year. The Patongo Youth Centre, which offers vocational training courses and support to help young people escape the cycle of poverty, ran at a reduced capacity last year because of social distancing measures.
Uganda has received 864,000 doses of the vaccine and health workers and teachers are being prioritised.
While we’re pleased that schools are beginning to reopen and children are able to access vital support services for the first time in nearly a year, there is no room for complacency. Vulnerable children are still at a huge risk. Schools could shut at any moment as cases rise in some areas. And the partial closure of the economy has hit poorer households the hardest. Street-connected children are not receiving the nutrition they require, while children with disabilities who were in school before the lockdown are now begging or working in markets to provide food for their family.
For families most at risk, such as those living in cramped conditions and working on the streets of Mombasa, the vaccine will be essential for their health and wellbeing. However, we saw in the first lockdown that children without ID were turned away from emergency food parcels distributed by the government. So how will they access the vaccine? Many children with disabilities are hidden away for fear of discrimination, how will these children receive the vaccine if the local community don’t even know that they exist? COVID-19 has not only widened existing inequalities but is reversing years of progress made in closing the gender gap and tackling the root causes of poverty. It is expected that national vaccine rollouts will only deepen these divides. COVID-19 is threatening children’s futures. So it’s vital we’re able to get the right support to vulnerable families who face increased risks even as vaccines become available.
This pandemic is leaving devastating scars on children’s’ mental and physical wellbeing. The need for our support is greater than ever, to keep children safe and healthy through such an unpredictable period. We’re so grateful for your ongoing support as we ensure that no child is forgotten in this crisis.