Children in conflict in urgent need of free and equal access to COVID-19 vaccines

March 11, 2021

Boy sitting in front of old building looking into the camera | War Child
Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic a year ago, we’ve seen its catastrophic impact on billions of children’s lives – including their mental health. Find out how War Child is taking a stand against pharmaceutical firms and governments that are blocking children’s equitable and free access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

A global assault on the right to health

Children affected by conflict have fast become the silent victims of the pandemic. Besides being amongst the hardest hit, they are also the least likely to benefit from the vaccine and medicines in the coming months or years. Unequal access to the vaccine and its sky-rocketing cost are an assault on their rights – and threatening a global mental health crisis not seen in decades.

Developing countries are already facing critical shortages of oxygen and medical supplies - yet most still haven’t been able to administer a single COVID-19 vaccine dose. The WHO has announced plans to immunise 27 per cent of the population in lower-income countries by the end of 2021. Yet this still leaves 73 per cent out in the cold.

In contrast in February alone, rich nations vaccinated their citizens at a rate of one person per second.

The role of Big Pharma and government

This urgent and preventable crisis is fuelled by vaccine manufacturers actively prioritising profits over human lives. They have been overtly reluctant to share their knowledge and intellectual property freely with others, which directly affects vaccine production and the distribution of free life-saving vaccines on an equitable basis.

In essence, it ensures that those who can afford it are first to get it.

Ending this injustice requires all COVID-19 manufacturers to commit to sharing their knowledge, intellectual property and data about the vaccines and allowing other producers worldwide to maximise their own production and accelerate the end of the pandemic.

It also requires governments to commit to providing the necessary influence and funding to secure this change.

Until now, the European Commission, along with other rich countries, has consistently voted against this. But today, one year after the start of the pandemic, another opportunity arises as the proposal is once again before the World Trade Organization.

Why urgent action is needed

There are three reasons why immediate action is needed.

Firstly, physical restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 limits children’s ability to cope with the existing stresses in their lives. They become even more anxious – especially if they have pre-existing mental health conditions.

"We are afraid of everything now,” says Hameed (16) who lives with his family in a refugee camp in Jordan. “I don’t know if I will live to see tomorrow or not."

Less adult support leads to more deprivation

The physical restrictions also limit children’s ability to access the support, resources and livelihoods that the adults in their lives largely provide. When refugee, internally displaced and other marginalised children don’t get the necessary support they need from the key adults and state actors in their lives - their short and long-term development is severely affected.

In Lebanon, for instance, those hardest hit by the pandemic and the worsening economic situation have had to rely on NGO and private donations. Faced with hunger and a fatal pandemic, many children are left with no choice but to deal with imminent starvation first – which they see as the lesser of two evils.

“Every day I leave the house and try to find something to do to get paid for,” says Walid, a Syrian teenager residing in a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley. ‘’Or, for someone who might be kind enough to give me money or food. I need to help my family. My father passed away and I’m responsible for them now.”

Loss of a protective environment

And finally, when children’s social fabric starts to fray due to lockdowns, closed schools and difficult home situations –their education and protection is put at risk. Domestic violence increases, they have less access to services and they are at more likely to experience abuse and neglect.

UNICEF estimates that the pandemic has taken more than 1.6 billion children and youth out of school so far, and girls in particular are likely to drop out for good, leaving them particularly vulnerable to child marriage, early pregnancy and an uncertain future.

"When people are confined, there’s more violence at home. Men are sleeping with and abusing children," said a youth War Child is supporting in DR Congo. Such traumatic experiences lead to further stress, stigma, changes to family structures and financial hardship which often leads to increased child labour and further school dropouts.

Addressing this injustice

We can address the crisis by taking the necessary actions to ensure children obtain equitable, free and immediate access to the COVID-19 vaccine and care.

The WHO director general recently called for support to “a patent waiver that would allow countries to make and sell cheap copies of vaccines that were invented elsewhere”.

Fortunately, European citizens are mobilizing. The European Citizens' Initiative'No Profit Pandemic', supported by War Child and more than 200 social organisations, has already attracted more than 100,000 signatures to ensure corona vaccines and treatments become a universal common good. They also require full public control over the causes of the shortages, over purchase prices and production costs.

Join the ECI and War Child in calling on COVID-19 manufacturers, governments and key influencers to put an immediate end to the injustice.

You can support a European Citizens' Initiative if you are an EU citizen (i.e. if you are a citizen of an EU member state and you are old enough to vote in European elections (18 years in most cases, 16 in others). More info here.