On Nov. 11, the Yale Institute of Global Health’s Global Health Conversation Series hosted Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, in an event that aimed to explore child health and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fore’s conversation was moderated over Zoom by Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute of Global Health, and Linda Arnold, pediatrics and emergency medicine associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine. About 150 participants — Yale alumni, faculty, current students and members of the UNICEF network — attended the event.

The conversation covered topics such as UNICEF’s areas of focus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the exacerbated inequalities children face globally during the pandemic, the stigmatized issue of mental health during COVID-19 and the effects of the virus on women in poorer countries and populations.

“We cannot support children’s health if we fail to support all of the other ingredients in their health and well-being,” Fore said during the event. “Education, protection from violence and abuse, water and sanitation, mental health, nutrition, social protections, skills development so they can prepare for the world of work — all of these ingredients help support optimal health and development. All of the systems that support these ingredients came under attack with COVID-19.” 

Fore said that earlier this year, schools closed and left 1.6 billion children across the globe without access to schooling. Families found it more difficult to make ends meet, and parents stopped taking their children to health centers due to fears of coming in contact with the virus, according to Fore. 

She emphasized that on a global scale, the pandemic would most likely harm children, especially girls, in the most poverty-stricken countries or populations. UNICEF is working with government officials to ensure that the proper resources are allocated to those most vulnerable to and hard-hit by the pandemic.

“At least half of the girls did not return to school after the Ebola crisis,” Fore said. “We need to think about the children that are most vulnerable. We need to think about the reallocation of resources within a country so that we can invest in children and young people.”

Omer said that the pandemic’s silent killer is its impact on people’s mental health. Children and adolescents are facing particular problems with coping with remote learning. Social isolation from friends — especially for children at a critical age, when social skills are developed — could have serious impacts on mental development.

According to Omer, the global digital divide is one of the biggest inequities in the pandemic. Having access to online information, as well as the necessary internet bandwidth for online school, is essential, Omer said.

“Teens’ lives have been disrupted, throughout the world, due to disruption in schooling, due to the fact that several teens unfortunately face abuse at home, and time at home can increase that exposure,” Omer said. “The traditional reporting mechanisms, for example, through teachers et cetera, break down during a pandemic. While several places took action that were reasonable in terms of reducing transmission, just like everything else, it has side effects. Adolescents are bearing those side effects, among others.”

Omer explained that adolescents can create healthy online communities to still — and safely — access some aspects of the social life that’s essential to their well-being. At the same time, Omer said, it’s important that the younger generation balances time online with safe physical activity while limiting contact with others.

The pandemic has not only placed an unprecedented amount of stress on children and adolescents, but also on their parents, because children who must stay home instead of attending school during the day must now receive much more attention from their guardians.

Walter Gilliam, director of Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, shared his own advice for parents during this trying time.

“If we adults care about the mental health of children, probably the first thing and the most important thing we should do is take care of our own mental health,” Gilliam said. “The reality is, children look to the adults that they trust and borrow their sense of self-security.”

Gilliam also stressed the importance of maintaining a sense of normalcy for children during the pandemic. For example, parents should maintain a routine for their children, he said, adding that parents can also give their children an opportunity to maintain some connections through socially distant outdoor activities.

The pandemic’s unusual circumstances could also present an opportunity for students to develop other skills, such as increased technological savviness or social skills gained from an increase in one-on-one interpersonal interactions, according to Gilliam.

Fore acknowledged that it is difficult for children and adolescents whose social interactions are severely limited by pandemic restrictions. She also noted that her work with UNICEF aims to prioritize children’s mental health and other issues, which Omer echoed.

“[Fore] is not new to global health and development,” Omer said during the introduction of the talk. “She’s been a real champion of economic development, education, health and humanitarian assistance, as well as disaster relief in public service as well as private sector nonprofit leadership career that spans more than four decades.”

The Global Health Conversation Series aims to allow the Yale community to listen to and learn from some of the most important decision-makers in the field of global health. Last month, for example, the series welcomed Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases .

Attendees can learn firsthand the types of decisions that go into mitigating the pandemic’s effects on global populations, according to the website for the webinar series.

“Overall, I think the event was very well received,” Michael Skonieczny, deputy director for the Yale Institute for Global Health, wrote in an email to the News. “What was most memorable was the Executive Director’s [Fore’s] positive note that the experience of COVID-19 will make us stronger and smarter on how we can help more people in need.”

The webinar was partially sponsored by the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.

Anjali Mangla | anjali.mangla@yale.edu