With little promotion or media coverage, President Biden’s May 12 Global COVID-19 Summit flew so low under the radar that even the most vigilant health watchdogs may have missed it. We may want to ignore more COVID news but a White House COVID-19 summit is worth paying attention to. The summit brought world leaders and humanitarian agencies together to address ongoing pandemic challenges like the vaccine rollout, strengthening health systems, and protecting the most vulnerable populations — which is why you may be surprised to hear that children and youth were largely left out of the conversation.
Only groups, UNICEF and the Catholic Relief Services, were able to finally place the plight of children and youth before summit leaders, presenters and the viewing public.
Why should we expect world leaders to mention children and youth? Children and youth do constitute over half of the world’s population and the majority population in many countries. They just do not have a voice. In February, 33 U.S. advocacy organization CEOs sent President Biden a letter urging him to use the Second Global COVID-19 Summit to center children and youth in global, national and local response plans, citing the decades of progress lost — especially for those with underlying vulnerabilities due to gender, disability or socioeconomic status. Again, our leaders failed to see the overall impact of the pandemic on children and youth.
While we welcome the emphasis on strengthening health systems, the summit missed something that USAID’s updated Youth Policy points to — namely, the untapped potential that the global youth population represents for future workforce stability. Integrating young people into health workforce development and training efforts will contribute to and support community-level readiness plans and prepare against future shocks to national and global health infrastructure.
Leaders did not address the current global food crisis exacerbated by and compounding the impacts of COVID-19 in many parts of Africa, Asia and the Americas. Vulnerable children and youth, who may have lost primary and even secondary caregivers, are now facing widespread hunger — seemingly without a shred of concern from the summit participants. With the current war in Ukraine, we have seen an even greater increase in the number of people at risk of acute hunger — especially children and youth unable to find safe access to nutritious, calorie-dense food needed for their development and growth.
Finally, despite all of the talk about vaccinations, other than UNICEF, summit participants neglected to broaden the scope of the discussions to other vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, which has risen dramatically in recent months and — according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF — could leave children and youth vulnerable to COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
The reality is that for the world’s poorest children — especially those in low- and middle-income countries — many of the priorities of the summit will have a limited impact. We are left scrambling to find a path forward for children and youth in a world shaped by COVID-19.
So, what should the leaders at the COVID-19 summit and the global community do to support the children and youth of the world?
The scale of ambition must change dramatically. First, the White House and Congress must secure at least $5 billion in emergency supplemental funding for COVID-19 response. Globally, we must simultaneously tackle COVID-19 while also ensuring that vaccinations against diseases endemic in low- and middle-income countries resume. Leaders must put a stop to learning losses and the rise in child labor and child marriages, address the trauma and impact of sexual and other forms of violence that have risen rapidly since 2020.
Collectively, we face a generational choice: draw on and build the resilience of children and youth or allow decades of progress to fade, losing a generation of young people in the process. We have a small window to recover losses, restore hope and rebuild the lives of children and youth in low- and middle-income countries. It is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
Samuel A. Worthington is the CEO InterAction, a U.S.-based alliance of organizations that collectively advocate for policies and solutions that advance the lives of marginalized people. InterAction’s Children and Youth Initiative focuses on prioritizing children, adolescents and young adults in global humanitarian and development programs.