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Young Children and the Pandemic: UNICEF Early Childhood COVID-19 Response in East Asia and Pacific

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INTRODUCTION

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about massive disruptive changes and is a threat across multiple sectors that are essential to children’s optimal development. The responses to contain its spread have hampered access to programmes and services that promote nurturing care for children. In the East Asia and Pacific region, the pandemic responses brought service provision geared towards young children to a standstill in many of the 27 countries supported by UNICEF programmes, upending lives and threatening the health and development of more than 150 million children younger than 5 years (UNICEF, 2019).

The period of a child’s life between conception and the start of school represents a critical and singular window of opportunity to shape the development of a child’s brain (UNICEF, 2017). At this crucial time, brain connections form at an immense speed, giving shape and depth to children’s cognitive, emotional and social development – influencing their capacity to learn, to solve problems and to relate to others. This ultimately has a significant impact on their adult lives, affecting their ability to earn a living and contribute to their societies (UNICEF, 2017).

COVID-19 threatens this precious opportunity for children in early childhood to develop healthy brains and lives. To reach their full potential, children need the five interrelated and indivisible components of nurturing care: good health, adequate nutrition, security and safety, responsive caregiving and opportunities for learning (UNICEF, World Bank and WHO, 2018). The pandemic responses have disrupted health services and jeopardized families’ access to life-saving health and nutrition services. The restrictions to control the spread of the coronavirus have led to the closure of preschools and childcare centres, thus upsetting opportunities for early learning. The economic fallout of the pandemic has exacerbated unemployment and poverty, resulting in stress among parents and caregivers, increased needs for parenting and family support and fewer resources available to protect and support children’s development.

Services supporting the development of young children are likely suffering more than other education levels. In particular, the increase in enrolment in early childhood development services over recent years may be reversed because many community-based childcare programmes have been forced to close due to the public health measures and financial constraints. The pandemic thus is threatening to disrupt the early childhood development workforce with lasting effect because staff without salaries might leave the profession entirely.

The disruptions caused by the pandemic responses now put at risk achievement of target 4.2 of the Sustainable Development Goal on early childhood development: By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education. Even before the pandemic, countries in South-East Asia were off track with target 4.2 and needed to accelerate progress to achieve it (UN and ESCAP, 2020).

This report summarizes the impact of the COVID-19 disruptions on early childhood development in countries across East Asia and the Pacific in terms of the five dimensions of the Nurturing Care Framework. It proposes priorities for stakeholders and policy-makers towards achieving the fourth Sustainable Development Goal, which is inclusive and equitable in nature. The report also highlights and analyses examples of UNICEF’s programmatic interventions geared towards supporting the development of young children during this pandemic.