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Future COVID-19 Relief Should Focus More on Children

young girl wearing a cloth mask
A new report points out some of the ways children are getting left behind during COVID-19 and other disasters — and how we can do better. Photo: Marcos Cola on Pixabay

A new report published today highlights key challenges that families and communities face in the wake of disasters. Published by the Resilient Children / Resilient Communities Initiative, led by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the report makes concise and achievable recommendations for legislators and decision-makers regarding how to improve child and community resilience during and after disasters.

While the findings and recommendations are meant to apply to any disaster situation, including earthquakes and hurricanes, they are especially timely as President Joe Biden takes office with plans to push for a large coronavirus relief bill.

The report centers on children’s health and wellbeing, asserting that disasters have a disproportionate and long-term impact on children. Resilient children are a fundamental part of a resilient community. And, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, returning to life-as-usual is impossible for caregivers and parents without first achieving normalcy for children.

“We have kids who aren’t in school, they’re not in daycare, and nothing else can return to normal until children’s lives are normal,” said Jackie Ratner, a senior project manager at NCDP, and the lead architect of the new report. “That’s something that disaster specialists have been saying for a really long time, and the whole country has seen how true it is during the pandemic.”

To aid children’s return to normalcy, the report outlines these key strategies:

“These briefs demonstrate that while communities are working hard to meet the needs of children in disasters, there is still more that we can do nationally to support their efforts,” said Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of NCDP and the national director for the Resilient Children / Resilient Communities Initiative.

Each brief (linked above) includes commentary and case studies from communities that had suffered from natural disasters before the pandemic hit. Each brief also includes more targeted recommendations on how to address the key strategies.

For example, the report outlines a case study in New Hanover County, North Carolina, where the economy reopened while childcare centers were only allowed to care for children of essential workers. Many parents were expected to go back to work before childcare was available.

“This order of operations is backwards,” said Ratner. “So there’s a really strong argument here for treating childcare as an essential service, not just as essential infrastructure.”

In another section, the report finds that pediatric mental health emergencies have increased as much as 31% due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with 7.4 million children and adolescents needing treatment for a serious mental health disorder. Unfortunately, federal resources provide assistance to fewer than 1% of children in need, and only three states in the country can meet recommended service levels using state-funded resources alone.

Children are especially vulnerable to the stressors of disasters, and the impacts of childhood stress and trauma can affect healthy development and have lifelong consequences not only for the individual but the entire surrounding community.

Yet only minuscule amounts of aid are earmarked to support children’s mental well-being. In the most recent coronavirus relief package passed in December 2020, this formed a grand total of $60 million out of the entire $935 billion. Mental health support for Americans of any age was allocated $4.25 billion, which means the portion for children — who make up 22% of the American population — is less than 1.5%.

To mitigate the mental health crisis unfolding within the coronavirus disaster, the report recommends increasing social service support in schools to bring more of the nation below the recommended benchmark of 250 students per social worker. It suggests expanding support for community-wide initiatives that address the root causes of stress for children and are “trauma-informed,” saving children from the potentially lifelong impacts of adverse childhood experiences.

The team hopes that as new legislation and executive orders are being written to deal with the pandemic and other disasters at all levels of government, policymakers will consider the recommendations in the report.

As climate change makes natural disasters more deadly, more common, and more expensive, Schlegelmilch believes there is an urgent need to simplify how disasters are managed at the national level. If disaster management reform does happen, he hopes guidelines such as the ones outlined in the report could help to make communities more resilient, both before and after disaster strikes, by putting children first.

“It’s what’s good for the children, yes,” says Ratner, “but children are really a bellwether for the overall recovery of the entire community and the entire economy.”

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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