(Image courtesy CDC)

New report details impact of COVID-19 on child health in Canada

In recent months, the harsh realities facing young Canadians have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic

By Carol Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grizzly Gazette

A new report documents how Canadian children have been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The findings of Raising Canada 2020 reveal that many of the top threats to childhood, including mental illness, food insecurity, child abuse, physical inactivity and poverty may be increasing because of the pandemic. This report highlights new data related to these threats and points to emerging concerns. The report is jointly published by Children First Canada, the University of Calgary’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health (OIPH), and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI).

In recent months, the harsh realities facing young Canadians have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The statistics in this year’s report are alarming: one-third of children in Canada do not enjoy a safe and healthy childhood one in three Canadians has experienced abuse before the age of 15 one in five children live in poverty, and suicide is now the leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 14.

The odds are particularly stark for Black, Indigenous, and other racialized children. These children are more likely to be exposed to adverse childhood experiences such as poverty and abuse, being overrepresented in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and being suspended or expelled from school because of systemic racism and discrimination.

“Since the outset of the pandemic, we have been worried that children were being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Early indicators from this report suggest that children’s health is in jeopardy,” says Sara Austin, founder and CEO of Children First Canada. “How the government chooses to respond will change the trajectory of children’s lives.”

Key findings of the report include:

Suicide, depression, and anxiety: Suicide is now the leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 14 in Canada. 57% of participants aged 15 to 17 report that their mental health is “somewhat worse” or “much worse” than it was prior to physical distancing measures. (Crowdsourced data)

Child abuse: The World Health Organization (WHO) calls violence against children the hidden crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Canada, Kids Help Phone has reported an increase in specific conversations about physical, sexual and emotional abuse. As kids go back to school, reports of suspected child abuse may increase, once children are seen by trusted adults in their schools.

Physical inactivity: Only 4.8% of children (ages 5 to 11) and 0.8% of youth (ages 12 to 17) are meeting 24-hour movement guidelines, down from 35%. (ParticipACTION)

Food insecurity: 15% of Canadians indicated living in a household where they experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days, up from 8.7% in 2017/2018. (Statistics Canada)

Immunization: Paediatric infectious disease specialists say that vaccination rates among children have dropped as much as 20% in parts of Canada — ramping up anxieties that the country could face a series of infectious outbreaks while still battling COVID-19.

Systemic racism and discrimination: The report highlights the limited availability of race-based data, but indicates that Black, Indigenous (First Nations, Metis and Inuit), and other racialized children in Canada experience adverse health outcomes. Additionally, in a recent survey of Canadian adults of Chinese origin, more than half of the adults surveyed are worried that Asian children will be bullied when they return to school, according to a survey by Angus Reid.

As challenging a time as this pandemic is for children, the report also highlights that along with children’s vulnerability, they also have incredible strength, resilience and wisdom. “Children must be engaged in Canada’s recovery efforts,” says Austin. “Truly child-centred policies can only happen when we act with children, rather than acting for them.” “This report is a stark reminder of the significant threats to child health and wellness in Canada likely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Brent Hagel, Professor of the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary and a member of OIPH and ACHRI. “It is also a call to action for us to address these issues and protect children’s rights.”

As an accompaniment to the Raising Canada 2020 Report, Children First Canada’s Council of Champions released a call to action, urging the government to appoint a federal Commissioner for Children and Youth, a Children’s Budget and a national strategy to tackle the top 10 threats. Aside from the threats impacted by COVID-19, climate change has been added to the list of threats analyzed in the 2020 report. “In our consultations with youth over the past year, we heard repeatedly that they view climate change as one of the greatest threats to their current health as well as their future and is one of their top priorities for action,” explains Austin.

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