Children in the city of Mazar Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, holding UNICEF information packs, on April 15, 2020.
New Delhi CNN  — 

An additional 120 million children in South Asia could be pushed into poverty due to the continuing spread of coronavirus throughout much of the region, according to a new report released by the United Nations children’s agency.

South Asia, which is home to roughly one quarter of the world’s population, has seen a rapid acceleration in the number of people infected with the virus in recent weeks, with India’s total caseload rising to more than 440,000.

The UNICEF report, titled, “Lives upended: How COVID-19 threatens the futures of 600 million South Asian children,” notes that while children are less susceptible to the virus itself, they are being severely impacted by the fallout, “including the economic and social consequences of the lockdown and other measures taken to counter the pandemic.”

In the eight countries detailed in the report, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka, an estimated 240 million children already live in “multi-dimensional” poverty – where a person’s experience of poverty includes multiple factors such as poor health, lack of education, poor sanitation and poor quality of work.

The pandemic could now push an additional 120 million children over the poverty line within the next six months.

“The side-effects of the pandemic across South Asia, including the lockdown and other measures, have been damaging for children in numerous ways,” said Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia. “But the longer-term impact of the economic crisis on children will be on a different scale entirely. Without urgent action now, Covid-19 could destroy the hopes and futures of an entire generation.”

Access to schools, nutrition planning, a pause in vaccination programs and heightened risk of abuse under lockdown are some of the issues that children across South Asia are facing and will continue to face in the coming months, said the report.

UNICEF cited seven outbreaks of measles or 250 cases in Nepal during its lockdown and a 55% drop in the number of routine vaccinations given to Bangladeshi children in April, as compared to February.

According to the report, immunization, nutrition and other vital health services have been severely disrupted, potentially threatening the lives of young children and mothers. And with the closure of schools, the report estimates that more than 430 million children have been shut out of their classrooms.

In many cases, remote learning has taken the place of actual classrooms, but the unavailability of internet connection or electricity in rural areas has limited access in many places.

The shutdown of schools has also led to the closure of school feeding and nutrition programs. And in some countries, such as India and Nepal, hundreds of schools have been converted into make-shift quarantine centers.

“While we need to focus on improving the quality of basic education, we also have to ensure that adolescents have the necessary skills for active citizenship and employability,” said UNICEF Regional Education Adviser, Jim Ackers. “The alternative is that South Asian countries will end up sacrificing their futures, and the prospects of so many of their children.”

As the pandemic is expanding rapidly in this region, large scale job losses and salary cuts have hit families and workers hard. While UNICEF said some countries have responded by expanding existing social security schemes or introducing new emergency programs, it doesn’t go far enough.

“The current level of fiscal responses has been inadequate, and some countries have offered almost nothing,” said the report.

One possible solution suggested by UNICEF is a universal child benefit package that would ensure that the vast majority of households across South Asia can access a minimum level of income support.

“Putting such measures in place now will help the countries of South Asia transition faster from the humanitarian crisis caused by Covid-19 to a resilient and sustainable development model, with long term benefits to child wellbeing, the economy, and social cohesion.” Said Gough.