Geneva Palais briefing note on the worsening situation in Sub Saharan Africa as a result of secondary impacts of COVID-19

This is a summary of what was said by UNICEF spokesperson James Elder – to whom quoted text may be attributed – on the worsening situation for children in Sub Saharan Africa as a result of secondary impacts of COVID-19, at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

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Geneva, Friday, 25 June 2021 – Sub-Saharan Africa is in the throes of a deadly uptake in COVID-19. At the present rate of infections, the current surge will exceed the previous one within weeks. As more contagious variants spread, vaccines continue to be perilously slow in reaching Africa, and hospitals are pushed beyond capacity.

Amid it all, the impacts on children continue to be devastating.

So as to provide a very quick regional snapshot:

  • In Uganda there has been a 2,800 per cent increase in new COVID19 cases between March and June 2021. The availability of oxygen in Uganda become a life or death situation.
  • Namibia, last week, had the highest death rate in Africa. Hospitals are full and there are not enough oxygen tanks. According to the Ministry of Health, Namibia is experiencing over 1,000 new COVID19 cases each day and 30 deaths. That is a high death rate for a country of 2.5 million people.
  • In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s an equally daunting picture – with low vaccination rates and poor health facilities.
  • And in South Africa a third wave is threatening to be even worse than the previous two, stretching an already strained healthcare system. So far, only 2.5 million people have received at least one vaccination, from a population of around 57 million. And yet that’s one of the higher vaccination rates on the continent.
  • Indeed, if we look at the situation across the world, there have been about 2.7 billion doses administered. Of these, around just 1.5% have been administered on the continent.

What does all this look like for a child in Sub Saharan Africa?

  • It looks like the loss of parents, and grandparents who care for so many children;
  • It looks like less education and more abuse. COVID-19 has meant a devastating blow to education. For instance, UNICEF estimates 9 million children in Eastern and Southern Africa never returned to class as schools started opening;

And now schools that re-opened are starting to close again;

  • it looks – and feels – like more anxiety and stress for children, as isolation, confinement, and loss of income take their toll;
  • it means worsening health care: antenatal visits, routine immunizations, and malaria treatments are down; in some countries by over 20 percent, leading to a reversal of positive trends;
  • it means that poor nutrition, access and economic hardships are making it more difficult to address HIV/AIDS.
  • And it equates to worsening gender-based violence, abuse, teenage pregnancies and child labour amid unprecedented economic strains.

Indeed, the economic situation is causing poverty records to be shattered, and not a single country has been spared. An estimated 50 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty in Sub Saharan Africa since the start of the year.

Child poverty has even further deteriorated. Based on national definitions, poverty rates among children in Sub Saharan Africa have jumped by 10 per cent since the start of 2020, and it’s getting worse.

In response:

UNICEF continues to support Governments, the World Health Organization and other partners to tackle the COVID-19 health crisis and the secondary impacts on children and their families, via:

  • Procuring and delivering COVID-19 vaccines, especially for healthcare and essential workers;
  • Strengthening healthcare and cold chain systems;
  • Procuring oxygen tanks;
  • We’re signing deals with manufacturers (e.g. Pfizer, AstraZeneca).
  • We’re working with airlines to secure transport capacity.
  • Even before COVID-19, UNICEF was already the largest single vaccine buyer in the world, procuring over 2 billion vaccines annually in order to reach almost half of the world’s children under 5.
  • Advocating to governments to keep children in school or learning while at the same time supplying water and sanitation to schools across the continent;
  • Increasing cash transfers to the most vulnerable, including by scaling up financing via a global funding facility, resourced by debt relief savings, international financial institutions funds and the fulfillment of official development assistance commitments by donor governments;
  • Providing mental health and psychosocial support for children and their families;
  • Preventing family separation and strengthen family and community-based care;
  • Protecting children from harmful practices, such as child marriage.

But much more must be done.

Governments must prioritise keeping schools open and safe, which can be achieved by applying guidance including spacing, different shifts, masking and handwashing.

But of course the clearest pathway out of this pandemic is a global, equitable distribution of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.

Ultimately, the global vaccination race will be won when Member States make sustainable plans to fully fund and supply  COVAX, while supporting the expansion of vaccine manufacturing capacity, including through proactive Intellectual Property licensing and technological transfer.

These measures are critical, but they won’t change anything overnight. Immediately sharing available excess doses is a minimum, essential and emergency stop-gap measure, and it is needed right now. As is financing to support the roll-out of vaccines.

As part of its annual Humanitarian Appeal for Children, UNICEF has called for US$ 659 million to help countries with the delivery of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostic tools in 2021.

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