While the Covid-19 pandemic has forced drastic changes to the way adults live their lives, it has had an equal impact on children, according to a senior attending physician with Sidra Medicine.
Children may be less prone to contracting Covid-19 or becoming critically ill due to the Covid-19 but they have been doubly affected by the current crisis, explained Dr Nadeem Jilani, who also oversees the Qatar Foundation member’s Child Advocacy Programme, .
"As countries across the world enforce lockdowns, quarantines, and self-isolation in an attempt to control the spread of the virus, children are inevitably faced with a disruption of routines and a lack of opportunities to socialise at a critical time in their lives.
"Rather than spending much of their day at school interacting with their friends and teachers, they are now confined to their homes with little to no outside interaction.
"Not only does this increase the chances of vulnerable children being in close quarters with existing abusers and with no outside intervention, but feelings of frustration among both parents and children could increase the risk of new cases of abuse.
“Vulnerable children who already face some form of maltreatment or abuse are particularly susceptible at this time, since potential interveners like school teachers and day-care workers do not have as much engagement with them,” Dr. Jilani said.
“The lockdown has led to a marked increase in cases of child abuse worldwide. National hotlines around the world are reporting an increase in calls relating to child abuse. Sidra Medicine’s Child Helpline has also been receiving calls from concerned school teachers and parents who know about children susceptible to abuse by caretakers or relatives,” he added.
The Child Advocacy Programme at Sidra Medicine aims to help prevent abuse and support children undergoing any form of abuse, including through continuous and stringent follow-ups with those who are known to have been abused in the past.
“We try to encourage parents to engage in entertaining activities with their children and keep them busy, to avoid excessive feelings of boredom and frustration that cause tension in households,” Dr Jilani said.
“New challenges are definitely coming our way, but we have been collaborating with local institutions like the Protection and Social Rehabilitation Centre (Aman) and looking to international organisations and agencies for advice and protocols on how to handle this unique situation.”
Covid-19 and its repercussions also raise the question of what happens to children whose primary caregivers are diagnosed with the disease, potentially leaving victims of child abuse unprotected or in the care of abusers. While there have been few such situations in Qatar to date, Aman often takes vulnerable children into its care, and any such cases reported to Sidra Medicine are jointly handled by both institutions.
Dr Jilani encourages caregivers, teachers, and children’s peers to be watchful for signs of abuse, whether through changes in behavior, visible injuries, or a general state of fear among children and teenagers. He also advises parents to deploy caution and monitor children’s online activity, as they are likely to spend considerably longer periods online due to lack of physical interaction and schooling.
“This opens up new avenues for abuse like grooming, predatory behaviour, and even sexual abuse,” he said.
“We are making efforts to ensure parents and educators remain aware of these risks and control them, but we also think it’s important to have honest conversations with children and teenagers about the dangers of using the internet.”