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By Estrella Torres* | Special to the BusinessMirror
A FEW weeks ago, two children were forcibly made to lie inside a coffin in Cavite as a form of “punishment” for violating curfew rules under the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) intended to control the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus 2019 (Covid-19). A video clip of the visibly scared children was uploaded on social media with a voice apparently coming from a man telling them they should “learn their lesson.”
In old Balara, Quezon City, a police officer was reported to have repeatedly hit a 13-year-old boy with a baton, causing injury on the young man’s back. The boy was reportedly sent on an errand by his mother to buy some items for cooking at a neighborhood store.
As the world grapples to find a solution to the Covid-19 pandemic that has led to the death of more than 265,000 people around the world as of Thursday (May 7), the impact of quarantine measures continues to take a devastating toll on children, who are the most vulnerable.
The children are more likely to suffer from hunger after their parents may have lost their jobs and daily income due to the ECQ, miss out on school and suffer from many forms of violence and abuses.
Atty. Alberto Muyot, chief executive officer of Save the Children Philippines, said the children and youth who are accused, or even those who are proven to be guilty, of breaking the quarantine rules must be treated with dignity and respect, and should be turned over to their parents and guardians and not be thrown inside detention centers.
He raised his concern following a string of reported cases of cruelty and degrading treatment of children who violated quarantine rules.
In Pampanga, a 15-year-old boy was arrested on the occasion of the observance of Palm Sunday along with three LGBTQI+ individuals for violating curfew rules. The minor was made to witness a sexy dance and kissing of the LGBTQI+ individuals as punishment.
Meanwhile, four boys and four girls were also arrested in Binondo, Manila, on March 19 for the same offense. Local officials forcibly cut the hair of seven of the children, while the one who resisted to have his hairdo “restyled” was stripped naked and ordered to walk home unclothed.
Local officials also placed five young people inside a dog cage on March 20 in Santa Cruz, Laguna, for violating curfew rules.
The ‘right treatment’
“We call on all local government officials to adhere to the Joint Memorandum Circular issued by the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Council for the Welfare of Children that clearly defines the procedure in handling children who are caught violating the quarantine guidelines,” Muyot said in a news statement.
The Joint Circular mandates officials implementing ECQ rules to observe strict guidelines by reaching out to children in street situations, avoiding harm, or risk against children, including physical, mental or psychological in nature.
It also reiterates protocols in reaching out to children, including those in need of special protection, children at risk, and children in conflict with the law during the ECQ.
Children also worry over the lack of food, and suffer feeling of disconnection from friends and the anxiety that their loved ones may get infected with the Covid-19 virus.
This was revealed in consultations with children conducted by the Building Urban Children’s Resilience Against Shocks and Threats of Resettlement (BURST) Project of Save the Children Philippines.
Separate consultations were conducted using online platforms, SMS and phone calls with children aged 11 to 17 from informal communities in Pasay City and relocation sites in Naic, Cavite.
The children who were consulted said most people in their neighborhood complain about their situation, particularly on issues about “where to get food to put on the dinner table, how to survive, and the uncertainty of not knowing when the enhanced quarantine will end.”
When asked how they feel about the situation, one of them said: “Malungkot po, dahil wala kaming magawa [We’re sad because we can’t do anything about it].” While at home, some children have to bear with extreme heat but may not be able to take a bath and maintain personal hygiene due to lack of water.
Distressed by circulating rumors and fake news, and the lack of information in their communities, the children are asking local officials to provide them accessible and child-friendly accurate information on what Covid-19 is all about, why the quarantine is being done, how the government is addressing the Covid-19 pandemic and how they can protect themselves and other children in their communities.
Relief goods given to their families are simply just not enough, according to the children, stressing they also need medicines and vegetables. Children also urged local leaders to provide them educational and leisure materials so they can continue learning and be productive during the quarantine period.
Lourdes Pambid, program manager of the BURST Project, said it is vital to engage children and their communities to understand first-hand how their lives have been affected by the crisis from the Covid-19 pandemic. The results of the consultations will provide guidance in planning child-based programs through a needs assessment with children’s participation as the Covid-19 crisis unfolds in the Philippines.
She said the consultations also included advocacy on how children and their families can protect themselves against the spread of the virus through awareness of personal hygiene, social distancing and cough etiquette, and how to ensure public health and safety in times of emergencies.
Pambid said children and their families in Cavite and Pasay urgently need relief assistance, including food and hygiene kits, and livelihood opportunities for their parents and guardians.
“Immediately, local leaders should ensure that relief assistance, or child-sensitive cash transfers, or vouchers are distributed to the poorest families to maintain their income sources and livelihood and, where [and when] possible, aligned with a longer-term government strategy on social protection,” said Pambid.
The quarantine measures also expose children to violence at home, particularly when parents and guardians face distress due to loss of income and livelihood as a result of limited mobility.
“The loss of income by thousands of families, especially the vulnerable groups, can immediately translate into not being able to put food on the table resulting in thousands of children who will go to bed hungry,” said Muyot, even as he called on local government officials to expedite the release of cash assistance and other economic support to qualified families under the Social Amelioration Program.
He also said local governments should integrate protection of children from violence, abuse or exploitation as part of the Covid-19 pandemic community response.
“Many children may suffer and witness abuse and violence at home due to heightened stress, anger and anxiety of parents and guardians following the loss of jobs and livelihood, and the uncertainty of how to provide for their family,” said Muyot.
With the possible lifting of quarantine measures next week, many children will still be missing out on school, trapped with feelings of anxiety and facing risks of violence at home and outside.
The lifting, to be sure, won’t ensure the end of the children’s burdens, and authorities still have time to act to ease their pains as the pandemic’s impact is expected to last for more than a year.
*Estrella Torres is head of Media and Communications of Save the Children Philippines.