Q&A: Henrietta Fore's biggest concerns about coronavirus and children

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Henrietta Fore, executive director at UNICEF. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

BURLINGTON, Vt. — While the direct health impacts of COVID-19 on children have been subject to some debate, there is no question that the second-order effects of the pandemic have been life-threatening and life-altering for the world’s young people.

How engagement with religious groups can help fight COVID-19

To help combat COVID-19, nonprofit organizations and U.N. agencies rely on influencers within communities who are trusted. However, in places where discrimination and lack of trust abound, they are also confronted with the limited power they have.

Asked what worries her most about the coronavirus crisis, Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, listed five different concerns she sees emanating from the spread of the virus, ranging from immunizations to nutrition to mental health.

Fore also described her agency’s efforts to work more closely with faith leaders and communities, both within the COVID-19 response and on a range of other issues related to children’s health and well-being.

“We operate in every country in the world, and we are there in many of the remote villages,” Fore told Devex.

“We see who are the venerated members of the community and who people listen to … and they carry voices and knowledge that are needed,” she said.

UNICEF has partnered with religious communities in Jordan to stop violence against children, with religious leaders in northern Nigeria to counter vaccine hesitancy, and with the organization BRAC in Bangladesh to train more than 300 religious leaders in Rohingya refugee camps to deliver messages via megaphones and posters about preventing COVID-19 and debunking myths surrounding the virus.

The agency has also established a Muslim philanthropy fund, which has so far raised $10 million for education programs for refugees and others in the Middle East. In April, UNICEF joined with Religions for Peace to launch the Global Multi-Religious Faith-in-Action Covid-19 Initiative to raise awareness of the impact of the pandemic on young people and to strengthen multireligious action to prevent the spread of the virus.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Are you more worried about disruptions to children's health or children's education or something else as a result of this pandemic? What's the biggest concern for you?

There are many families that are worried about going to a local health clinic, and thus they're not taking their children in for their routine immunizations. So in some of the [health] centers where we are in almost all countries, routine immunizations are down 40% to 60%. That's enormous.

We could lose millions of children's lives if they don't get immunized, and these are all the basic things — it's measles and polio and yellow fever, and it just goes on and on. So I'm really worried about immunizations.

“There are now enough low-Earth satellites ... that we can actually connect every school to the internet in this world in the next few years — if we are smart about it.”

— Henrietta Fore, executive director, UNICEF

Ninety countries have paused their immunization campaigns, which will have a big impact. Part of it is that community workers do not know how to immunize when we've been doing door-to-door and you're very close to another person. So they paused them. But this could have a real impact, because COVID's not going anywhere. It's going to come in waves.

Another one, obviously, is nutrition. We're worried about food. If children don't get adequate nutrition in those first thousand days of life, there are going to be lifelong problems, such as stunting and wasting. Much of this, like stunting, is irreversible.

A third area is distance learning, remote learning, digital learning. We've never had a world in which 1.2 to 1.4 billion children are out of school. You're lucky if you have parents who care about your education, but every parent is struggling with it, every child is struggling with it, every teacher who's thinking about their classes that they're not in, every education ministry.

So we've got to get this world leaped forward so that we can connect every school to the internet, so that you can learn remotely by radio, by television, by internet on your iPhone. We must come out of COVID stronger.

A fourth area that I'm very concerned about is water. We keep saying, "Wash your hands and you'll be safer." Well, 40% of the world does not have water or soap. Schools need it. Households need it. Hygiene is extremely important in a time like this.

And lastly, I'll just tag in mental health. We started on mental health this year. Our “State of the World's Children” report will be on mental health. So we've really begun looking into it as an important initiative for children and adolescents. The time period when at least half of the mental health problems begin is when you're 14 or so.

So now with COVID and with lockdowns, it has exacerbated depression, anxiety, fear, and anger. And so mental health is going to be with us as an issue now because of COVID for this generation.

Are you finding that it’s possible to undertake that kind of innovation — with remote learning, for example — in the middle of a crisis like this?

I think you do it now, and the reason I would do it now is because it's front of mind for families. It's front of mind for ministers. And when you get that confluence, you take it.

So let me just give you two examples. Technology has changed enough that there are now enough low-Earth satellites that are being put into place that we can actually connect every school to the internet in this world in the next few years — if we are smart about it. But we will need room in national budgets.

“So whether COVID comes, or the locusts or a drought or whatever comes their way as a community, the faith-based leaders are there.”

— Henrietta Fore, executive director, UNICEF

Right now, there are a number of initiatives that the World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary Fund] have where there is a halt or a stay, sometimes a forgiveness [of debt], and with that, there will be some room in national budgets.

Finance ministers need to prioritize what's most important in their countries, and to our way of thinking, investing in children, investing in their education is the greatest equalizer they can invest in in their country. If you can educate every child, they will have a chance in life. So this is the moment when you don't spend it on something else and you put it behind connecting your schools and your country.

We are launching this big initiative called Learning Unlimited so that a young person can learn their national curriculum and download their curriculum and their learning materials anytime, anywhere. And we really feel that this is something that 500 million children can be connected to by the end of next year, by the end of 2021. And we want 3.5 billion to be connected by 2030 — so all of them under the age of 25.

What's luring the ministers is we started talking to the telephone companies — the ICT providers — about zero-basing, so that if you are downloading education materials either to your iPhone, or if you're a teacher to tablets, or if you're a school to your school, and it costs zero.

So it encourages everyone to do it — the ministers, the schools, the teachers, the students, and the parents — to all download information. This mixture of a hybrid between radio, television, and internet is going to be very powerful because all of us learn aurally as well as visually.

Within the COVID response, is UNICEF actively seeking out faith leaders and communities of faith as key entry points or influencers within the communities where you work?

Yes, very much so. I think the premise is that faith-based leaders share with UNICEF the same roots, the same genes. We feel there's a moral imperative to look after children and the most vulnerable in our societies, and that's a very important shared root.

We have engaged with the faith-based community for decades, but it's just really getting stronger. What is important is that they carry the trust and the mores and morals of their societies and their communities, and they're there in the communities.

So whether COVID comes, or the locusts or a drought or whatever comes their way as a community, the faith-based leaders are there, and they're there to help on health, on education, on the economic impact for their community, and it's enormously powerful.

How do you think about UNICEF's role when it comes to tapping the best of what faith communities and leaders have to offer, but also influencing those things that stand in the way of your mission and your agenda — but without doing so in a way that's antagonistic towards those communities?

It's a constant challenge. We think of our role as not just talking to the people who think just like us, but to talk with the people who are different, because the world becomes better if you can work together.

One of the benefits of UNICEF is that we've seen a lot. So we know why some things work and why some things do not work, and we try to share that knowledge. In some communities, when Ebola first hit, they'd never seen Ebola, so they didn't know what it looked like. And that's true with polio or measles. It's very hard if you cannot visualize it.

But a UNICEF can bring to you what that looks like, what it could look like for your community, and it opens up your mind that there might be something that you did not yet know that was in another community — maybe it was across the sea, or maybe it was over the mountain — but it had a different experience. So learning and education is something we need to do lifelong.

We share this root, as I mentioned — it's a moral commitment to help the children and young people. So if we can tap into that spirit, we would hope to be able to work with most religious leaders.

How do you think about working with faith leaders or faith communities in a way that's true partnership, as opposed to instrumentalizing their power and influence on behalf of your own agenda?

I think everyone in our world of humanitarian and development worries that we will be instrumentalized, and that is also true for the faith-based leaders. You don't want to become what you are not. You want to remain true to yourself.

But with this shared root, I think we have more of a chance to trust each other. And it is trust, in the end, that is the most important. It is what partnership is built on. And if you can see the best in people, you might have a chance to bring it out.

UNICEF has a set of core values of care, respect, integrity, trust, and accountability. Everyone at UNICEF knows those five values, and we try to act on them every day. And you'll notice that those are the values that you would also share if you were a faith-based leader.

So hopefully, between our values and our shared love and mission to look after children and the most vulnerable and the youngest in our societies, we can find common ground.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.

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