Canada’s children have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and should be prioritized in the country’s recovery efforts, a new report says.
“The toxic stress that many children have experienced in recent months, and will continue to experience, will take a heavy toll and will require concerted effort and investment on the part of our federal government to ensure children can recover,” said Sara Austin, the founder and CEO of advocacy group Children First Canada.
The shutdown has led young people to experience more poverty, food insecurity, worsening mental health, racism and physical inactivity — as well as an increased potential for abuse — according to the group's Raising Canada 2020 report, released Tuesday.
The group is calling for Ottawa to establish the role of a federal children’s commissioner, as well as a strategy and a $250 million budget to tackle what they say are the top-10 threats to children.
Those 10 threats are:
- unintentional and preventable injury
- poor mental health
- child abuse
- infant mortality
- physical inactivity
- food insecurity
- systemic racism and discrimination
- vaccine-preventable illnesses
These threats are not new; they have been dramatically affected by, or become highly visible, during the pandemic.
Mental health, climate change and other troubles
The report draws heavily on data compiled by Statistics Canada, including the findings of its 2019 Canadian Health Survey on Children and Youth, released last month.
The shutdown has led young people to experience more poverty, food insecurity, worsening mental health, racism and physical inactivity — as well as an increased potential for abuse — according to @children1stca's Raising Canada 2020 report
That survey found that young people aged 12 to 17 often rate their own mental health less positively than their parents do, suggesting the mental health struggles experienced by children often go unnoticed both at home and by the system.
“Even prior to COVID-19 children had very long wait times, months and sometimes years, to access mental health support,” Austin said in a phone interview. “Those wait times have increased since COVID-19 because in many cases programs and services have had to shut down or demand has increased.”
Suicide has overtaken preventable injuries and accidents as the leading cause of death among children aged between 10 and 14, which Austin said was “deeply disturbing to me as an advocate, as well as a mom with a 10-year-old, to think about children so young facing suicidal ideation.”
(These rates continue to be significantly higher among First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth.)
The report, a version of which Children First Canada first published in 2018, also named a new threat: climate change.
“This is one we're hearing directly from children themselves needs to be a high priority for the policy-makers as we think about the health and well-being of children,” Austin said.
While perhaps more difficult to quantify than some of the other threats, Austin said climate change’s impacts can be measured by indicators such as access to safe drinking water, especially in the context of the boil water advisories affecting children in many Indigenous communities, and rates of asthma in urban areas.
Austin said the resumption of school after months of lockdown is expected to result in a spike in reports of child abuse.
“This is when we are expecting to see child abuse reports going up,” she said, noting there is typically a spike in such reports when children return to school after holidays.
“But we expect it to be even more drastic given that kids have been confined for six months now,” she said. Early survey data has shown that young people and their mothers are feeling worse than before the pandemic, while calls to Kids Help Phone have also increased.
The report also said vaccine rates have dropped by 20 per cent in some parts of Canada, as closures of health-care facilities push children off their vaccine schedule and increase the risk of a resurgence in preventable infectious diseases.
It named systemic racism and discrimination as a specific threat, and identified inequity as a theme that cut across all other threats.
Black and Indigenous children and other children of colour are more likely to live in poverty and in child welfare, face discrimination in schooling, and are more vulnerable to COVID-19.
They or someone in their household are also more likely to be working in healthcare, grocery retail and other industries that society has deemed essential and frontline.
Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer