The Impacts of Covid-19 on Children and Youth in Latin America

By Ana Alanis

Even though we are hearing that children might be less likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19, they are quite vulnerable to other harmful effects, such as abuse, neglect or psychological distress during the pandemic. In Latin America, child labour and an increasing vulnerability for children on the move are two issues that could be exacerbated by the pandemic.

Child Labour

Latin America is a region with immense income inequality, and inequality can accentuate vulnerabilities. It is also a region with a huge informal economy. Consequently, many of the individuals who fell into unemployment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic lacked formal safety nets, such as social protection schemes, to ensure basic living conditions while they were unable to work. Increased levels of unemployment and poverty, accompanied by the lack of access to formal support measures, could make parents and carers more likely to ask their children to engage in paid work in order to contribute towards family income.

An analysis by ECLAC and ILO in Mexico, Peru and Costa Rica uses a very comprehensive model to identify the risk of child labour. This analysis has, in fact, provided estimates that child labour could increase between 1 and 3 percent in the region due to COVID-19. While this may not sound a lot, it means that at least 109 and at most 326,000 children could enter the labour force (in addition to the 10.5 million already employed).

It is worth noting that child labour can take many shapes and forms. For girls, child labour in the context of Covid-19 could mean “working at home” with increased responsibilities related to cleaning or cooking. While these may not inherently seem like harmful modalities of work, they could be keeping a child from online learning, or from otherwise dealing with the psychosocial effects of quarantine/confinement.

With regards to the economy, the region’s sharp disparities in household levels of vulnerability can also significantly impact children. In Latin America, marginalized, often rural, areas of the country lag far behind the cities in terms of learning opportunities. Of course, platforms and strategies are continuously being developed to help children learn from home, especially during the pandemic. But how helpful are remote learning programmes when many households in the region have neither the technology nor equipment to make use of them? A study in 2015 showed that only 39% of primary schools in Latin America had internet access. Internet connectivity differed tremendously between rural and urban schools (19% of rural schools had connectivity, compared to 58% of urban ones). While the study focused merely on differences between urban and rural schools, it would not be unrealistic to assume connectivity disparities translate similarly, if not more acutely, to internet connectivity in homes.

The Vulnerabilities of Children on the Move

Latin America is a key stage for human mobility. Over the past few years in particular, some of humanity’s largest migrations have taken place in the region. Massive amounts of human displacement from Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, among other countries, have consistently demanded humanitarian responses. New policies, such as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), have changed the norms of asylum and migration in the region. These protocols are, broadly speaking, a set of policies roughly a year old that stipulate that migrants crossing into the US by land and seeking asylum there could be asked to wait in Mexico while they are given a court date and their asylum process is carried out.

In the context of COVID-19, this has meant that despite the fact that human mobility persists, many borders have been closed and institutions have either slowed or completely paused their processes. Consequently, a significant number of vulnerable individuals – many of them lacking the legal protections tied to legal residence in a country – are not able to continue their legal processes or even get access to basic services. While migrant shelters, hospitals and other organizations that usually help migrant populations are working at limited capacities, the vulnerabilities of migrant persons have magnified.

When looking specifically at the conditions of migrant children during the Covid-19 pandemic, the virus could be having a significant impact on mental health. For children in migrant shelters or centres, alongside the usual challenges, the pandemic has added the herculean task of explaining to children not only what Covid-19 is, but also what can happen if they get sick and do not have access to a doctor, or why they cannot play with other children who are sharing their living space.

The virus could also present a significant logistical challenge in the case of migrant children. In the case of migrant shelters and centres, for example, social distancing might not be entirely possible due to space constraints. Other challenges could be situations where a child’s parents fall ill: some migrant shelters already have very limited space, and it would be difficult to socially distance children from a parent showing coronavirus symptoms. What happens if the parent gets so sick they are unable to care for the child? Who looks after the child in those situations, another migrant parent or the government? There is a universe of logistic complications that could arise from the Covid-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to childcare and children on the move.

Another impact of the virus worth discussing is its additional contribution to xenophobia and discrimination. Xenophobia has been a challenge for migrant children since the beginning of time, simply because they might look different from, or speak a different language than, the indigenous population. During the Covid-19 pandemic, migrant children might be arriving in their host countries at a time when travel and movement have become even more taboo. Local communities could be afraid that foreigners, who just recently travelled, are more prone to sickness or infection. This could easily encompass migrant children, and they could be at risk of cruel treatment or discrimination, by other children or by adults.

While the aforementioned challenges might seem difficult to overcome, we should not underestimate the amount of solidarity and support that governments, organizations, and individuals have been able to muster for vulnerable children and youth in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Living and working in the region, I have seen a massive move of compassion and the emergence of hundreds of helpful initiatives for youth and children during these times. In Latin America, civil society has mobilized, to an impressive extent, in order to look for solutions to address these challenges. Protocols are being designed and implemented; fundraising is taking off. Organizations are looking for ways to improve their response capacity, and often this has meant hiring more people to staff telephone or internet services that make sure children get the help they need. I find this move of solidarity to help children in the region quite inspiring and heartwarming.

Stay home if you can, and remember to be kind to one another!


Ana Alanis is a member of Child Helpline International’s #Youth council advisory.