“What’s happening is not surprising,” says Erica Hall, child rights expert at WorldVision. “And it’s coming out of the desperation of families, but it’s also because their protection systems have been shut down – the schools are closed, the courts are shut, the police are not as visible.”

As well as removing the safety nets for children, she said that lockdowns had actually obscured reporting, too, meaning that the data on what is happening to children across the globe so far is likely to be just the beginning. Another problem is that many of the most appalling things that can happen to children are often the most secret.

In the Philippines, reports of the online sexual exploitation of children spiked by over 260 per cent during lockdown, according to the Department of Justice. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which operates the CyberTipline Report helpline, had 279,166 reports in the period from March to May.

In the same period last year, there were 76,561 calls. And while some incidents were linked to children being put at risk by spending more time online unsupervised, a significant minority of incidents involved the parents or care-givers who were offered money or other benefits to get their children to act in certain ways online, according to Unicef’s team in the Philippines.

“That is exactly what we are talking about,” says Maria Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef’s child protection specialist. She says the reports “ran the gamut” from the sharing of sexualised images of children to livestreams of sexual acts. Some 76 children were rescued by police even during lockdown, she says, and one rescued family spoke of the ‘cottage industry’ involved in recruiting families and setting up internet access and cash transfers.

“We know we have this hidden and most grievous problem,” she says. “I don’t think there’s any way of sanitising the dire economic situation the Philippines is in. And there are other drivers taken with the poverty. When you don’t touch the child, they are not harmed, the parents or caregivers think.”

But she said it was not about blaming parents. “For them, survival trumps everything. Parents can feel justified to sell their children online if it means feeding their family. We need to support them – if they are desperate, what do we expect them to do?” she asks.

That is a rallying cry across the globe, with child protection experts warning that the safety of children needs to be prioritised – via re-opened schools, better child protection, and the establishment of social and financial safety nets for the most vulnerable – or the world faces losing an entire generation.

“In sum, what does humanity think of the future? Are these kids going to pay the price for Covid?” asks Unicef’s Mr Williams. “They will, unless we get these policies right for them. And they will be asking you and me, what did you do? What did you do during Covid?” 

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