A Bangladesh national, UNICEF Representative in India DR YASMIN ALI HAQUE joined the UNICEF India in July 2017. With wide experience of handling contingencies worldwide, she has received accolades for her lead role in programming and policies for an effective response for children in humanitarian crisis.

A medical doctor by profession, she has also served as the first UNICEF Representative in South Sudan from 2010 to 2013, and led the UNICEF Ghana office from 2007 to mid 2010. In 2004, Dr Haque played a key role in guiding and coordinating the UNICEF response to the Asian tsunami.

In 1996, as Project Officer for Health and Nutrition in Bangladesh, she contributed significantly with her human rights-based approach in effecting maternal mortality reduction.

In an interview to AJITA SINGH, Dr Haque stresses that children are the hidden victims of the Covid-19 pandemic as the risks of their exploitation and abuse are higher than ever during this global crisis.

Excerpts:

Q. How is UNICEF India playing its role in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic?

A. UNICEF India is working in partnership with WHO and other UN partners to support the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, and state governments for a coordinated multi-sectoral response for Covid-19 containment and mitigation.

In India, it is supporting the Government through multi-sectoral teams in 13 field offices in the thealth sector across 23 states and intensively in more than 100 districts of the country. UNICEF teams have experts in health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education, child protection, inclusive social policy, disaster risk reduction, communication for development, and external communications and advocacy.

UNICEF is also helping in readying for other emergencies including measles, cholera, Zika, Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) and floods, among others in the context of India. The emphasis is on minimising the spread and impact of the (Covid-19) outbreak on the population, with a focus on women and children, and ensuring that essential services for women and children are adapted to the context and accessible during and after the pandemic.

Q. Any focus area in particular?

A. In the Covid-19 outbreak, risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) is one of the UNICEF’s priority intervention areas globally that helps decision making related to personal risk, mitigates rumors, shares information and informs effectively to involve communities in the response to control the outbreak.

For instance, UNICEF recently supported the Government to train frontline functionaries such as Anganwadi workers, ANMs and ASHAs and Child Protection functionaries to ensure that response and messaging is consistent across the states.

We are also conducting rapid assessments using mobile technologies, reaching out to civil society through Covid Academy, under NDMA, to train NGOs in the field on prevention messages.

To ensure convergence, UNICEF is working with other Ministries, particularly Jal Shakti, MHRD and MWCD to utilise all available platforms (schools, swachhgrahis) to advance correct and consistent information and messaging and ensure continuity of basic services such as nutrition for pregnant women and children, immunization sessions, remote schooling, psychological support and advocacy for social protection schemes for the most vulnerable.

Q. What role is UNICEF playing globally during this Covid-19 crisis? How is it helping India in tackling the challenges?

A. UNICEF’s current response focuses on supporting governments across the world, including those already affected and those preparing for a potential increase in (coronavirus) cases.

UNICEF is also engaging influencers and opinion leaders such as faith leaders, media, CSOs, in prevention and response stages of the disease outbreak to keep the public informed. Furthermore, millions of young people are being engaged through our social media channels with correct and updated messaging.

UNICEF is also engaging with the media networks including radio and TV in this regard. Our work includes: ensuring key supplies and services for children, women and vulnerable populations; scaling up messages about handwashing with soap; aiding governments with the procurement of personal protective equipment for health care workers, including gowns, gloves and masks as well as oxygen concentrators and medicines.

Apart from these, supporting distance learning opportunities for children who can’t access school is our prime objective along with providing mental health and psychosocial support to the affected children and families.

Q. What is the UNICEF’s main concern now?

A. The socio-economic impact of Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting children globally. The impact is particularly severe for children living in extreme poverty, at risk of exclusion or in humanitarian and migrant contexts.

UNICEF’s main concerns are children who due to the current pandemic situation and physical distancing requirements, are missing school, may miss their immunization schedules, access to nutrition and health services.

Protection of children from violence and abuse is also an important consideration at this point. UNICEF is appealing to all Governments, decisions-makers, families, and individuals to do everything they can to promote and protect the rights of all children, ensuring Covid-19 does not bring further risk and harm to the world’s most vulnerable.

Q. What issues do you feel would arise post lockdown?

A. As we are seeing, children are the hidden victims of the pandemic in terms of its social, economic and secondary impacts on families. We are concerned about the short-and long-term impact on children’s health, well-being, development and prospects.

Apart from the health impact, many migrants — especially for women and children — who are continuing their journey home are susceptible to several dangers and face challenges in accessing essential services. Furthermore, the misinformation on the spread of Covid-19 heightens the risk of discrimination against migrants, including children and their families.

The spread of the pandemic is affecting childrens’ education and giving rise to several protection issues. The risks of exploitation and abuse are higher than ever, for boys and girls alike. With schools closed, there are many who do not have access to online learning and education opportunities, thus further increasing the digital divide.

The danger of many leaving school as a result remains high. Experience from Ebola in other countries has shown that the longer the schools are closed, the higher is the risk of child marriages. Child trafficking also remains a serious concern.

Q. Do you expect a rise in crimes against children?

A. We’re very much worried about children and young peoples’ mental health. Children and young people are missing out on some of the best moments of their young lives – being with friends, participating in class, and enjoying sports.

This increases anxiety and can cause changes in behavior. Globally, we are also hearing of increase in domestic violence against women and children. The impact of the pandemic on the economy is also expected to be severe, adding further pressure and stress on families.

Q. Any action plan to alleviate these ills?

A. UNICEF continues to work with the central and states governments and our partners to halt the transmission of the virus, ensuring access to basic services to keep children and their families safe.

Any public health response to the pandemic should reach the most vulnerable. This means ensuring equitable access to testing and treatment, making accessible prevention information, water and sanitation services.

There should be plans in place for safe, family-based care and support for children separated from their caregivers. UNICEF advocates with the governments at all levels, mobilising partners, corporates, civil society to engage and advocate for ensuring the protection of the most vulnerable and their access to basic services as well as tackling misinformation, stigma and discrimination.