In a disaster situation, some are more disproportionately affected than others. While people are getting back to their normal pre-pandemic lives after more than two years of social distancing, children of low-income families are struggling even more under social safety net loosened by COVID-19, according to our investigation. Pandemic-induced lockdowns of economy, schools and care facilities have apparently hit children from impoverished household the hardest, widening the gap in education and development.
As of April this year, some 410,000 families with children reportedly depend on the national basic livelihood support program due to reasons including pandemic-induced unemployment, an increase by 70,000 households from that of 2019. It is a whopping 23 times rise compared to the average increase of three years before COVID-19. During the pandemic, those children from impoverished background had to figure out how to study and get food on their own unlike their peers in middle-and-above-class families whose parents could take care of them while working from home. A research team from Seoul National University found that 40% schoolers from financially-vulnerable families took online classes without any digital educational devices of their own, and 20% of them achieved lower educational outcome than before the pandemic.
The number of schoolers suffering from health problems such as overweight or obesity has also climbed. Deceased outdoor activities due to school lockdowns and delivered or junk food that replaced school meals may be attributable. An analysis by Child Fund Korea showed that teenagers of low-income families spent more time alone at home without parents or friends during the pandemic, resulting in sharp decline in happiness index. Some children with developmental challenges have set back to their pre-pandemic condition as special care facilities had to shut down.
The gap created during the school years may keep growing and can be settled for life without an intervention from outside. Leaving those kids behind can be tantamount to turning a blind eye to a future social catastrophe more disastrous than COVID-19. It is imperative that intensive support and care be provided to reverse educational and health deprivation that has lasted for more than two years. Korea's central and local governments should work together to offer emergency support programs for children from families whose parents are unable to provide full-time care.
Keener efforts should be made to look for children who are not getting free school lunches. Special education programs should also resume for children with disabilities. It is not acceptable to see children deprived of digital educational devices when complaints abound annually that some grant money to kindergartens and schools is left unspent. Accurate academic analysis and customized remedial classes should be provided to tackle educational vacuum and offer the initial level playing ground for students with impoverished background.