Op-ed on associated with Policy Brief: “COVID-19 pandemic: Lessons from the Asia-Pacific”
Lessons from the Philippines:
Save the Best for Children Under the Uncertainties of COVID-19
The deadly widespread COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges to the world. It is not only a global public health emergency that has claimed thousands of hundreds of people’s lives, but also causes immediate and long-term economic impacts which have devastating effects on billions of households. The Philippine has become the second hardest-hit country by COVID-19 in Southeast Asia. As of early July, there are 51,754 confirmed cases and 1,314 fatalities reported. The number of confirmed cases has been increasing rapidly since June.
The most marginalized across the country– the 33 million children who make up around one-third of the Philippine population – are likely to be hit the hardest. Too many children have been denied healthcare, been torn out of school, or left in abusive homes without access to protection.
But in crisis there is also opportunity. The pandemic is a chance for regional governments to build back better, safer, and greener. In July, Save the Children set out a post-pandemic agenda for the Asia Pacific region, including the Philippines – a road map for how we can use the disruption of COVID-19 to create fairer and more inclusive societies. We believe that the virus must lead to a fundamentally different world – a new social contract between governments and people, drawing on lessons from the pandemic’s impact on all of our lives.
With the COVID-19 fatality rate of 3.37%, the Philippines has the second-highest fatality rate in Southeast Asia . The rapid spread and relative high death ratio of COVID-19 have shown the inefficiency of the healthcare system as well as insufficient public health management capacity of the Philippines. Broadly speaking, countries with well-functioning hospitals and stockpiles of crucial supplies including Personal Protective Equipment have done better in protecting their populations from the pandemic. The Philippines’ low healthcare expenditure mainly explains the low efficiency. The healthcare expenditure of the Philippines as part of the GDP has been around 4.4% for several years, much lower than the world’s average level of 9.89% . The country has also faced a shortage of vital medical supplies. “The average number of ventilators in small hospitals around the Philippines is very small compared to what is really needed,” according to a media report . Countries with better-resourced healthcare systems such as Thailand and Vietnam have done much better. For example, Thailand could provide 10,000 ventilators for a population of 70 million. The pandemic is a wake-up call for governments to target at least five percent of their GDP spending on healthcare moving forward.
The education sector has also been disrupted on an unprecedented scale, with 28,451,212 students affected in the Philippines due to the nation-wide school closures . To stem the spread of coronavirus, in early March, all educational institutions were enforced to close schools and classes have been shifted online . Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently said he will not allow students to go back to school until a coronavirus vaccine is available, even as some other countries resume in-person classes . However, virtual classrooms are inaccessible to those without internet connections. The pandemic has exposed the sharp digital divide in the Philippines, where most children living in rural and remote areas have no access to the internet. The Philippine’s network readiness index scores only 47.7, ranking 71 worldwide, compared with Singapore’s 82.13 , which shows that most Filipino children are not technically prepared for long-term online learning.
Internet access is becoming more than just a daily necessity but is also crucial in fulfilling a number of children’s human rights – including access to education and information. With online education likely here to stay, the Philippine government must redouble efforts to ensure that everyone can access the internet, including those in marginalized and rural communities.
The combination of lockdown and school closure has also heightened the risks of increased Violence Against Children (VAC), particularly online sexual exploitation in the Philippines. The financial and psychological pressures brought about by the pandemic have increased tensions in the home, resulting in huge spikes in calls to domestic violence hotlines in the country. Children have been particularly hard hit by what the UN has called a “shadow pandemic”, as they have been unable to access the protection services they normally would or find sanctuary and safety in schools. The Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Cybercrime said 279,166 child sexual abuse cases have been reported from March 1 to May 24 this year, compared to 76,561 cases over the same period in 2019. The cases of internet-based sexual exploitation of children this year saw an increase of up to 264 percent, the Philippine’s DOJ pointed out .
The government leaders must use the pandemic to strengthen systems protecting children from domestic violence and other forms of abuse. They must invest in remote monitoring systems that can better detect violence against children behind closed doors in family homes. The virus has also shown that social service workers who play a crucial role in protecting children from harm must be deemed “essential” in the same way that medical doctors and nurses are.
The pandemic has wrought havoc across war-torn and wealthy societies worldwide. In the Philippines, the situation is not any better with 33 million children facing different forms of issues associated to healthcare, learning, and violence on different levels. We owe it to children to learn our lessons from the virus and create a world where they can not only stay alive with their families, but also grow and thrive.