Although school closures and lockdowns have helped slow the spread of COVID-19, these measures have had a massive impact on children’s lives. It has been harder for social workers to reach children and for teachers to keep their students learning and engaged, while millions of children have been left more vulnerable to violence, isolation and neglect.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we are seeing remarkable acts of courage and commitment from social workers, counsellors and helpline workers. They continue to do the job of protecting children from neglect and abuse, helping them learn, and providing much needed connection and love.
We cannot ask social workers, teachers and others to do their jobs well without the resources and protection they need.
UNICEF supports these frontline workers as they keep children safe and engaged – a job that has never been more essential and more challenging.
Above: A caregiver hugs a three-year-old boy at Hana and Rozafa, a state-run residential centre in Tirana, Albania.
Mai Chor, a social worker with the Ministry of Social Affairs, pays one of his clients a home visit in Battambang, Cambodia. In the last four years, his work has involved addressing domestic violence, abuse, school-dropouts and crime, mostly for underprivileged children and families. He is also educating communities on how to stem the spread of COVID-19.
UNICEF is supporting efforts for continuous learning and aiding decision-making on reopening schools by raising awareness of the benefits of school returns for children’s learning, well-being and protection.
Tirusew Getachew, a social worker at a quarantine centre, interviews a young girl who was deported and returned to Ethiopia amid the pandemic. Her work involves identifying and registering unaccompanied children and youth, many of whom are victims of human trafficking, deportation or have been held in captivity.
UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration are supporting the government to help vulnerable populations like returnees and children, and are also supplying dignity kits, soap, recreational kits, tents, bedding, and other essential non-food items.
“My job can be very challenging at times and overwhelming, but it is also very rewarding.”
Hlín Sæpórsdóttir is a social worker in Reykyavik where child protection services have recorded the highest number of child abuse cases in Iceland this year.
Muhammad Yunus is a coordinator for the COVID-19 response in Mumbai. He works to spread awareness about the pandemic in slum settlements where communal toilets have become the main source of transmission.
UNICEF has partnered with local child rights organizations for a one-of-a-kind project called “Flush the Virus: Mumbai Diary” to promote sanitation and prepare schools as quarantine centres. Under the project, non-touch handwashing stations are being installed in community toilets, and elbow-operated taps in government schools.
UNICEF and partners expect to reach 150,000 people, including 30,000 children in slums across Mumbai.
Awa Yacoulyé, a nurse and social worker, leads a COVID-19 information session at a temporary shelter for children living in the street in Bamako, Mali.
Opened by UNICEF and Samusocial, a social work organization, the centre supports around 600 children living in the street, who now have access to handwashing facilities, face masks and medical and nutritional facilities.
“There are 13 children here at centre, aged 12 to 15,” Yacoulyé says. “But in the context of the pandemic, the needs remain huge and we need to open up more temporary shelters so we can look after [more] children in need.”
Salimata is a helpline worker who manages coronavirus cases at a response centre in Nouakchott. Operators and doctors are available over the phone free of charge, at all hours of the day and in the four national languages, as well as French.
UNICEF has been supporting the Government to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 and supports the helpline by providing equipment, covering operational costs and training operators. The helpline has addressed more than 1 million calls since March 2020.
Zarina Chidama, Assistant Chief Programme Officer at the National Orientation Agency (NOA), performs a contact tracing call as part of a campaign to track ‘passengers of interest’ to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria.
In the early days of the pandemic, people with a recent travel history from countries with widespread community transmission needed to be located and self-isolate for at least 14 days. Part of this task fell on the NOA who, with support from UNICEF, prepared to trace nearly 4,000 such people.
Sadia Saleem is one of 250 agents at the ‘Sehat Tahaffuz (health protection) 1166’ helpline centre in Islamabad. The helpline fields queries about the coronavirus and operates seven days a week from 8:00 am to midnight.
Originally set up as a polio helpline supported by UNICEF and partners, the facility expanded in scope to address the COVID-19 response and had received 5.4 million calls as of July 2020.
“It’s stressful work, but I feel proud that I’m serving the people during this challenging time,” says Sadia.
Sibongile Zuma is on the phone at ChildLine, a non-government organization that provides free counselling for children and adults across South Africa.
UNICEF supports the organization with nine call centres around the country, many of which receive calls from children who ask about the coronavirus or want to report neglect and hunger. Often children are experiencing anxiety due to abuse, fear or difficulty with homework, or are experience domestic violence and online harassment. In the last two weeks of June 2020 alone, they received almost 6,000 calls.
Social worker Tetyana Stoyanova visits one of her clients in Bilokurakyne, eastern Ukraine. “Sometimes families use COVID-19 to keep us out of their homes,” she says. “They say they are afraid to get infected from us”.
In Ukraine, 42,000 children, including those with disabilities, were sent back home from boarding schools and other childcare institutions as a result of measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. The situation has led to growing demand for social services and for enhancing the role of social workers in the community.
UNICEF Ukraine is working with regional and local partners to rapidly assess the situation and provide support to children and families in vulnerable communities, as well as to equip frontline responders in eastern Ukraine with protective supplies and technical guidance.