Press Release

IACHR Warns of the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Children and Adolescents

April 27, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - As part of the work of its Rapid Integrated Response Coordination Unit for the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) once again noted how serious the health crisis caused by the pandemic is and urged states in the Americas to adopt decisive, urgent measures to ensure that children and adolescents continue to enjoy their human rights. The pandemic is posing huge challenges all over the world but is having a marked impact on human rights in the Americas due to how significant the inequality gap is in the region. Vulnerable social groups such as children and adolescents are being particularly affected. The IACHR urged countries to prioritize the best interests of children and adolescents during the pandemic, particularly those who do not have families to care for them, those who are living on the streets, those living in poverty, those in detention centers, and those living in care institutions.

The IACHR noted that at the beginning of the health crisis, people over the age of 60 and those with comorbidities were identified as being most vulnerable to the effects of respiratory disease, which gave the misleading impression that children and adolescents are not in the so-called risk group. However, data from epidemiological bulletins indicates that the health of younger people could also be seriously affected. Current figures show that the spread of COVID-19 among children and adolescents is greater in the Americas than other parts of the world. While in other regions children and adolescents only accounts for around 1.8% of infections, in Argentina, Brazil, Honduras, and Panama, for example, this age group represents an average of 5% of confirmed cases. In Brazil, nine children and adolescents have died as a result of COVID-19. Although the mortality rate is low among this group, recent scientific research indicates that catching the virus can have serious consequences on different organs.

Likewise, measures adopted to contain the spread of the virus such as social isolation and quarantine can have specific effects on children and adolescents and their families, particularly for those experiencing prolonged confinement in their homes. The IACHR is particularly concerned about domestic violence, which may be aggravated during this period. Six out of every ten children in the Americas are raised using violent methods that include physical punishment and psychological aggression, which could be exacerbated during social isolation. Countries such as Argentina (in the provinces of Jujuy, Formosa, Salta, Buenos Aires, and Chaco), Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, and Peru have noted an increase in reports of domestic violence during quarantine.

In response, the IACHR calls on states to strengthen systems for preventing and reporting abuse and/or violence, including hotlines and online systems, as well as implementing awareness-raising campaigns through the television, radio, and other media. States are obliged to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate, and sanction intrafamily violence and abuse. Similarly, psychosocial and educational mechanisms must be put in place to help families, children, and adolescents, especially those with disabilities or mental health issues. States must also consider the effects of gender stereotyping on the distribution of chores within the home, which may have a greater impact on the rights of girls and adolescents. Furthermore, states must provide special care for children who do not have family caregivers or who cannot comply with shelter-in-place and physical isolation measures within a home, such as children who are living on the streets.
Physical isolation also affects other rights, and the IACHR is particularly concerned about guaranteeing children the right to education while schools are closed and school activities are suspended. The IACHR emphasized that states must implement mechanisms that allow children to continue their education in a way that is appropriate to their age and level of development. Specifically, states must provide tools and flexible work arrangements to enable adults with family responsibilities to engage in activities with children, prioritizing the strengthening of family ties and ensuring that children with disabilities can access education without exclusion, through support systems, communication strategies, and accessible content. The IACHR also stressed that schools play an important role in guaranteeing food security in many countries in the region.

The IACHR noted that most states in the Americas have adopted distance learning systems to provide continued access to education. Although distance learning is an important tool, it is a measure that does not serve all children equally because access to computer equipment and the internet is not universal in the Americas. In Latin America in particular, data from 2019 indicates that 33% of the population does not have access to the internet. Given this digital divide, the IACHR has recommended that states use the media to guarantee access to education without discrimination and noted the need to ensure that online learning does not exacerbate existing inequalities or replace student-teacher interaction.

With regard to adolescents who are deprived of their liberty in juvenile detention centers, the IACHR noted the recommendations made in the press release published on March 31 concerning the rights of people who are deprived of their freedom during the pandemic. Specifically, the IACHR reiterated the need for states to adopt measures to prevent the spread of the virus, reduce overcrowding within facilities, and evaluate alternative measures to the deprivation of freedom, prioritizing alternatives to confinement. The IACHR also endorses the guidelines of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which recommend that states must provide children and adolescents who cannot be released with the means to maintain regular contact with their families given the current restrictions on visits. Although these restrictive measures may be necessary in the short term, if they continue for long periods, they will have a marked negative effect on the adolescents in question. Likewise, states should provide care for children whose parents or guardians are being deprived of their freedom, prioritizing release from detention whenever possible and guaranteeing contact by appropriate means that comply with health recommendations.

The IACHR reiterated its concern over the increased vulnerability of children in situations of migration or displacement. On this point, the IACHR reiterated what is set out in the Inter-American Principles on the Human Rights of All Migrants, Refugees, Stateless Persons, and Victims of Human Trafficking, namely that any migration policy and administrative or legal decision relating to the entry, stay, detention, expulsion, or deportation of a child must prioritize evaluating, assessing, considering, and protecting the best interests of the child or adolescent in question, as must any action taken by the state in relation to a parent, primary caregiver, or legal guardian, including measures adopted regarding their migration status. Situations that pose a risk of families being separated should be addressed as a matter of absolute priority, and all protection measures must be adapted to the specific circumstances of the children in question so as to guarantee immediate, effective access to information and the relevant protection mechanisms.

The IACHR values the measures that states have taken to guarantee the rights of children and adolescents during the pandemic. In particular, the IACHR praised the fact that Argentina had implemented free hotlines throughout the country for reporting violence experienced by children and adolescents under social isolation. According to information provided by the state of Argentina, people who are in a situation of gender-based violence are exempted from complying with preventive, mandatory social isolation measures when they need to ask for assistance or report instances of such violence, as are the establishments that provide assistance to these people. The IACHR also valued the recommendation issued by Brazil’s Ministry of Women, Family, and Human rights, which instructed municipalities to interpret guardianship councils (authorities that provide protection for children and adolescents) as being essential, thus preventing their activities from being suspended during the pandemic. Likewise, the IACHR praised the website implemented by the government of Mexico to provide children with information on COVID-19.

In light of the above, the IACHR drew attention to recommendations 23, 61, 63–67, and 69 of Resolution no. 01/20, Pandemic and Human Rights in the Americas, and also recommended that states implement the following measures to protect the rights of children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Strengthen the protection of children and adolescents, particularly those who do not have family caregivers and who are living in care institutions, and prevent the spread of COVID-19 by implementing measures that take their specific needs as people who are still growing and developing into account and serve their best interests as widely as possible. As far as possible, this protection should safeguard family and community ties.

2. On the matter of situations of violence, it is recommended that measures be adopted to prevent abuse, intrafamily violence, discrimination, and the exploitation of children and adolescents, that awareness campaigns and reporting hotlines be launched, and that any reports made be acted on with due diligence.

3. Provide mechanisms that enable children to continue accessing education and other stimuli that are appropriate to their age and level of development. States must ensure that children with disabilities can access distance education without exclusion, through support systems, communication strategies, and accessible content.

4. Promote activity routines for children and adolescents, providing tools that enable families to encourage activities and games that allow children time for recreation, so as to safeguard their physical, psychological, and emotional health.

5. Make effective mechanisms and procedures available for protecting the human rights of children and adolescents in situations of human mobility and displacement and providing assistance to these groups, with an emphasis on protecting their best interests, and make all possible efforts to prevent family separation and promote reunification.

6. Adopt measures to guarantee children’s and adolescents’ right to participation, providing opportunities for their opinions to be heard and taken into account in decision-making processes regarding the pandemic. Children should understand what is happening and feel involved in decisions that affect them.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 090/20