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Making vulnerable children a priority in the pandemic response

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A child’s developing brain is a wonder, as any parent will tell you. As fathers, we understand that nurturing, supportive interactions early in life are critical to helping our kids reach their full potential.

But the COVID-19 pandemic is posing new challenges to early childhood development for families in the United States and around the globe. While children have largely been spared from the direct health-related impacts of COVID-19, experts warn they could be the hardest hit by secondary impacts of the pandemic, like poverty and hunger.

The reasons are wide-ranging. The economic shutdown has closed schools and daycares and has left many parents out of work. Families all over the world are struggling to put food on the table. Vulnerable children are believed to be at increased risk of maltreatment because they are at home and out of regular contact with adults like teachers and day care providers, who are required to report suspected signs of abuse. Children are also more at risk of losing parents, grandparents and other caregivers—their primary sources of safety and care. All of these factors can make it more difficult for children to receive the support they need for healthy development.

We took steps in the bipartisan CARES Act to address some of these challenges here at home. We included $3.5 billion for childcare providers to prevent them from going out of business and to ensure childcare for essential workers. We dedicated funding to Head Start programs and the K-12 school system to help them respond to the needs of children and families. We also provided nearly $9 billion for child nutrition programs. We will continue to respond to the needs of U.S. families in the next COVID-19 relief package.

What is clear is that more work is needed to support our children during this pandemic, including those in the world’s poorest regions who face additional challenges. Experts warn that the economic impact of COVID-19 could double rates of hunger worldwide. Malnutrition is already one of the leading preventable causes of child deaths globally. In some places, losing a caregiver to this pandemic not only exposes a child to the trauma of losing their main source of support, but also puts them at risk of child labor and exploitation. Disabled children can be especially vulnerable.

That’s why, for children around the world, we are working to pass into law our Global Child Thrive Act, which would help protect and support young children who need it more than ever.

This legislation would incorporate early childhood development programs into our foreign aid to lay the foundation for better health later on. By age three, a child’s brain has reached about 80 percent of its adult size. Training parents and caregivers in simple techniques to promote brain stimulation early on is essential, but can be difficult for those living in unstable, resource-poor, or dangerous settings.

The pandemic reinforces the need for our bill. The Global Child Thrive Act would support the most vulnerable children by strengthening and implementing programs that teach caregiving techniques and create settings that foster early childhood development, which will help protect children from the secondary impacts of the COVID-19 crisis today and other crises in the future.

Before the pandemic, some 250 million children under five years old in poor and middle-income countries were at risk of impaired development due to poverty and stunting. Incorporating early childhood development programs into our foreign aid and strengthening existing programs is an effective approach to ensure that children reach their full potential and can contribute to the resilience of the communities in which they live and grow.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has begun to consider global health security efforts to prepare for the next pandemic. Legislation supporting early childhood development must be prioritized. Our bill should be a part of the U.S. pandemic response.

Currently, around 1 percent of our U.S. budget goes to international aid programs. We must wisely allocate limited dollars to do as much good as possible. Our bipartisan, bicameral bill invests in children’s health during their most formative years for payoffs that last a lifetime. We must pass the Global Child Thrive Act now.

Roy Blunt is chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee and a member of the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee. Chris Coons is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee.

Tags Child care Chris Coons Coronavirus COVID-19 Roy Blunt

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