The ECPC Global Call to Action in Response to COVID-19 for Children in Fragile and Conflict-affected Settings

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ECPC Global Call to Action in response to COVID-19 for children in fragile and conflict affected settings: The promise of early childhood development

“The ECPC strongly supports the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ appeal to protect the rights of children and safeguard their well-being during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

(Web version)


The Early Childhood Peace Consortium (ECPC) is a global movement of United Nations agencies, Non-Governmental Organizations, academia,  practitioners and the private sector focused on sharing scientific and practice-based evidence on how investment in early childhood development (ECD) can contribute to sustainable peace, social cohesion and social justice.  We recognise that investing in ECD is a powerful and cost-effective strategy for reducing violence, poverty and exclusion and for building peaceful societies. 
The Consortium upholds the urgent calls from world leaders to prioritise peace as humanity grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. We join the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in his COVID-19 call for an immediate Global Ceasefire in all corners of the world (United Nations, 2020), a message echoed by world leaders, and most importantly, by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, who urged warring parties to stop fighting to safeguard the lives of  children living in conflict-affected areas (UNICEF, 2020).

“We stand in solidarity and collaborate with the United Nations Secretary-General, UNICEF, WHO and all other United Nations agencies, as well as with governments, religious leaders, non-governmental organizations, academia, early childhood networks and civil society as a whole in the response to the global pandemic humanitarian crisis, to mitigate its impact on families and young children living in situations of conflict, military occupation, and displacement.”


The COVID-19 outbreak and containment measures exacerbate existing crises and further violate vulnerable children’s rights. The pandemic severely affects young children’s physical and mental health, their social and emotional development, safety, economic security, access to education, play, recreational activities and more (United Nations, 2020). 


Children and their parents/caregivers living in conflict-affected and fragile settings already struggle with limited access to health services, including vaccinations. Virus-related containment measures negatively impact their already volatile safety and access to education (UNHCR). With school and childcare centre closures, young children’s learning, nutrition and hygiene suffer. For hundreds of  millions of children, these closures can mean going without daily school meals, clean water and sanitation facilities (United Nations, 2020). 
Measures to contain the pandemic, including movement restrictions lead to economic insecurity which is likely to result in increased child labour, sexual exploitation and trafficking, thereby perpetuating cycles of violence. Lockdown measures also increase the risk that children will suffer or witness violence and abuse (UNHCR; UN News, 2020). Furthermore, more children and abusers than ever before are online, heightening the risk of exposure to cyberbullying, hate speech, sexual exploitation and abuse (EVAC, 2020; UN News, 2020b). Childcare and school closures weaken or eliminate important early warning mechanisms for child abuse and neglect detection and reporting. Hence, there is an urgent need to protect children from violence amidst the pandemic. In a statement, 22 leaders of UN agencies and international organizations called on governments to provide child protection case management and emergency alternative care arrangements, and to ensure that all virus containment measures include social protection systems that support  children’s rights (EVAC, 2020).


Even in the absence of a pandemic, uprooted children, mothers, mothers-to-be and families—those living as refugees, migrants or internally displaced persons (IDPs)—face immense barriers to  accessing health services and sanitation (UNICEF, 2020). The rapid spread of COVID-19 and the containment measures are worsening this already precarious situation, making migrants, refugees and  their children, disproportionately vulnerable to exclusion,  xenophobia, stigmatization and discrimination.

In camps or in overcrowded detention centres, the uprooted often live in deeply unsafe and highly stressful environments with no possibility of social distancing (CRC COVID-19 Statement, 2020).  This pandemic also poses greater challenges for migrant and displaced families and children as they are faced with higher rates  of deportation and mass expulsions; these practices threaten  children’s rights and are a risk to public health.


The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures to contain it has  produced huge societal public health and economic challenges across the globe. Although there is still a great deal we do not know, infectious disease experts have clearly outlined the steps we all need to take to limit the spread of the coronavirus (WHO Advice for Public, 2020). 
Although most children are less likely to be symptomatic with COVID-19 compared to adults (Ludvigsson, 2020), data is now emerging that a small percentage children can develop a novel pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome (PMI) that can be deadly (Verdoni, 2020). In addition, there is no question that there are and will be many other life-threatening adverse consequences of the pandemic for millions of children across the globe. Children are, in many ways, the hidden victims of the pandemic. 
Parents/caregivers are the first line of response to protect and support their young children’s health, learning and socio-emotional development, particularly in a crisis such as a pandemic (UNICEF COVID Guide for Parents, 2020). Consequently, separations from primary attachment figures (parents/caregivers) due to illness, quarantine, hospitalization or death will have immediate, harmful, and long-term effects on a child. Adverse effects also result from economic losses from lost wages and jobs of parents/caregivers, associated food insecurity, and the potential loss of housing. These factors are compounded by the psychosocial stress experienced by parents/caregivers—especially mothers—which seriously undermines their mental health and  ability to provide nurturing care (Lundberg, 2012; Barrero-Castillero, 2019).  The unique challenges of uprooted families or those living in  conflict-affected settings greatly exacerbate these adverse effects.  As a result, hundreds of millions of children are now growing up  in environments conducive to “toxic stress,” which can impair  their neurological development and will likely prevent them from reaching their full developmental potential (Shonkoff, 2020). Sadly, this can cause lifelong challenges and become a self-perpetuating and intergenerational cycle (Shonkoff, 2020).


The good news is that developmental neuroscience has led to a  revolutionary shift in assessing the interplay between genetic alterations in the developing brain and early life experiences, both positive and negative. The neuroscience and other multiple disciplines, such as epigenetics, psychology, and economics, indicate how ECD services can prompt members of high-risk groups to rebuild trust, re-connect, and develop long-lasting resilience (Donaldson, 2018). The science heralds a new era, asserting that ECD is a vital opportunity for building a sustainable future fit for the world’s children and empowering them through promoting The Culture of Peace, as called for by the United Nations (UN Resolution A/RES/74/21).


•  Maintain and further invest in quality programmes and  services for families and their young children that live in situations of conflict, military occupation (Watchlist, 2020) and  displacement during the COVID-19 response efforts (Yoshikawa et al., 2020).

•  Ensure that essential child protection services are recognised  as lifesaving and continue to be provided and made accessible to all children even during lockdowns, quarantines and other  types of restrictions.

•  Prioritise protection of young children, who in this time  of crisis are highly susceptible to neglect, abuse, violence,  exploitation, and stigma as their parents/caregivers experience increased instability and stress, which may result in long-term and irreversible negative consequences. 

•  Use mass media – radio, television and social media –  to promote psychosocial support, cognitive development,  nutrition and physical activity. Ensure existing online resources are accessible and address pre-existing inequalities in fragile and conflict affected settings. Ensure children’s experiences are safe and positive during the COVID-19 pandemic (UNICEF, 2020). 

•  Invest in new research to understand the impact of COVID-19  on children and their families:

(i) the adverse impact of the pandemic on parents/caregivers and their ability to provide  nurturing care for their children;

(ii) the social-emotional impact  of the virus and (the measures to control it) on children;

(iii) the role children play as vectors of the infection; and

(iv) the underlying biology and optimal treatment for the newly identified PMI syndrome that is associated with COVID-19. A more evidence-based understanding of these issues will help governments in their decision making about opening or closing early childhood development (ECD) centres and schools at various stages of the pandemic. 


•  Ensure an inclusive approach for all children and their families living in situations of conflict, military occupation and fragility, including migrants, refugees and internally displaced  persons, who have a right to the highest attainable standard of health (OHCHR, 2008). Those children should be entitled to  protection for themselves and their families, including having access to testing and early detection for COVID-19, and the means to physically distance, self-isolate and take other appropriate physical and mental health measures (IASC, 2020).

•  Uphold the rights of vulnerable children and their families as we emerge from this pandemic into recovery. It is vital to have ECD programmes that are multileveled, benefiting the child and parents/caregivers, the community, and institutions at national, regional and local levels. Programmes should be safe, protective, inclusive, accessible and most importantly, culturally sensitive, to allow children and their families the space they need to be  the driving force for social change.

•  Protect women’s and girl’s rights, without discrimination, and support community-based action through gender-based analysis to favour their empowerment and social inclusion. 


•  Build on the extensive body of international research on the  power of ECD to promote peace and sustainable development.

•  Invest in strengthening systems (e.g. through financial  resources, capacity building, personnel training) with a holistic and whole-of-government (multi-ministry) approach.

Five-point Global Call to Action
  1. Reaffirm commitment to human rights and the rights of children  that are being undermined during the global pandemic crisis. 
  2. Prioritise investment in the survival, development and protection of children living in situations of conflict, military occupation, and displacement.
  3. Protect and prioritise investments in Early Childhood  Development programmes and services in the global pandemic response and recovery efforts.
  4. Ensure that gender equality, inclusion and empowerment of children,  parents/caregivers, families and communities be at the centre  of COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.
  5. Implement more effective policies and practices in all countries,  ensuring that early childhood programmes and services are essential in promoting The Culture of Peace (UN Resolution /RES/74/21) and in sustaining peace. 

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