The youngest victims

Published September 19, 2022

FOR millions of children in Pakistan, life is going to be particularly precarious in the coming months, with consequences that will last well into the future — at least for those of them that manage to make it to adulthood.

As the aftermath of the cataclysmic floods continues to unfold, and disease and malnutrition set in, the youngest Pakistanis are the most at risk. Of the nearly 1,500 fatalities so far from flood-related causes, around 530 are children.

According to Unicef, an estimated 16m children are among the flood-affected population, with at least 3.4m of them in need of immediate, lifesaving support.

Following a two-day visit to the inundated areas of Sindh, the Unicef representative in Pakistan said that malnourished boys and girls were battling diarrhoea, dengue fever and painful skin diseases as a direct result of the catastrophe.

Disasters tend to discriminate along generational (and gender) lines. Even in a country like the US, research indicates that within a month of a natural disaster, young children manifested a 9pc to 18pc increase in acute illnesses, including diarrhoea, fever and respiratory ailments. Somatic symptoms — headaches, nausea, lethargy — also manifested a higher incidence. Then there is the psychological fallout.

Read: Floods double protection risks for women and children

Routine gives children a sense of security, and youngsters who have seen their lives upended overnight by a cataclysmic event, with no end in sight to the disruption, are at enormous risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The super flood compounds the tragedy of an unconscionably inequitable society where vast numbers of children already contend with profound disadvantages from birth.

Consider that malnutrition leaves 38pc of under-fives in the country stunted, one of the highest prevalence rates in the world — a situation the Unicef has described as a “rising emergency” for Pakistan. It dooms millions of them to a future in which they will never achieve their full potential.

Moreover, although infant and under-five mortality rates have been falling steadily in recent years, there is clear disparity between rural and urban areas, with the latter showing more of a decline because of access to better health facilities.

Given the floods have impacted rural areas the most severely, even those gains may be reversed — at least to some extent. Increasing poverty is also likely to lead to a rise in child marriage, with all its deleterious effects on girls’ mental and physical health.

Going forward, Pakistan’s children must be at the heart of the rehabilitation effort.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2022

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