Children are afraid of the virus too

Children are worried about the pandemic. And children who have been forced to flee are in a particularly difficult situation. They are already struggling with fear and the trauma of war. Now they are also afraid of becoming sick and dying.

“Adults must talk to their children. Together with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), we have developed strategies to help,” says Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Tromsø, Jon-Håkon Schultz.

The Arctic University of Norway is one of the northernmost universities in the world. It is located in the Norwegian city of Tromsø, where it is light 24 hours a day from mid-May until well into July. In winter, it’s dark all the time.

Professor Jon-Håkon Schultz works in the university’s Department of Education. His research team has been collaborating with NRC for years, and together they developed the Better Learning Programme for schools.

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Jon-Håkon Schultz
Jon-Håkon Schultz is a Professor in Educational Psychology at the University of Tromsø in Norway. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

The programme, which combines psychosocial and educational methods, helps teachers to support children who have been traumatised by war and displacement. The children learn to use various coping strategies so that they can take control of their fears.

Read more about the Better Learning Programme

This is what helps children to deal with trauma

  • Rediscovering and rebuilding a sense of security. Security gives children a chance to experience calm.
  • Feeling empowered to change their situation for themselves and knowing that they can ask for help if they need it. 
  • Connecting with other people and receiving social support.
  • Re-establishing hope for the future.

Now, in these difficult pandemic times, Schultz and NRC have worked out a new strategy. The goal is to tackle children’s new fear: Covid-19.

Children who have experienced war and conflict, and who are now struggling with the fear of Covid-19 as well, will get help to think other thoughts so that they have enough energy to play and do their schoolwork.

Marwa Rasheed, aged 9, fled her home in Taiz and now lives in Al-Meshqafa camp with her family. “We have been living here for two years. We don’t go to school because of corona,” she says. “I’m trying to study at home until the end of the coronavirus' rules and then we can go back to school.” 

Photo: Mahmoud Al-Filstini/NRC
Children all around the world are missing their school. Marwa, 9, from Yemen, tried to study at home while her school was closed. She lives in a camp for displaced people. Photo: Mahmoud Al-Filistini/NRC

Scared of dying

In NRC’s recent study of stress among children in the Middle East – which focused on Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine – many of the children we interviewed said that they were afraid of dying of Covid-19.

Read more about the survey

“The survey showed that levels of fear had gone through the roof. As many as 88 per cent of the children told us that they felt stressed because of Covid-19,” says Schultz. He continues:

“Children are especially vulnerable for two reasons: they lack the cognitive ability to understand complex causal relationships, and they lack life experience. This can lead to children being much more frightened than they need to be.”

Unfair on children

Persistent high levels of stress are a threat to children’s development. In fact, there is evidence that so-called “chronic” or “toxic” stress can disrupt cognitive development and lead to illness. Some studies even indicate that chronic stress can cause epigenetic changes in our DNA and affect future generations.

Photo: Daniel Wheeler/NRC

Details: 12-year-old Shaher is originally from Dara'a, Syria. He has lived in Za'atari Refugee Camp since fleeing the war in Syria in 2013. He lives with his mother, father and two younger brothers. 

"I am scared of the virus. I feel stressed all the time and it makes my head hurt. We are trapped in a prison with the virus."

"There's rumours around the camp that if there's an outbreak, we won't survive." 

When asked what he believes will happen if he becomes infected, Shaher replies: “Maybe life. Maybe death.”
“I am scared of the virus. I feel stressed all the time and it makes my heart hurt,” says Shaher, from Syria. He lives in a refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Daniel Wheeler/NRC
I feel stressed all the time and it makes my head hurt. We’re trapped in a virus prison.
Shaher, 12, Syrian refugee in Jordan

“Don’t misunderstand me: Covid-19 is dangerous, and it is reasonable to be worried – and sometimes even scared. But these children are constantly afraid of dying. It’s unfair for children to be ten times more frightened than they need to be,” says Schultz.

“The reason why children become so scared is that the adults have not taken the trouble or the time to talk to them about it. Or they may not have enough knowledge about Covid-19 to share.”

And this is where NRC can help, the professor explains:

“Among other things, we train teachers how to initiate conversations with their students to dispel their fears.”

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What can adults do?

When children only get parts of reality, they use their imagination to fill in the missing parts. Then misunderstandings can easily arise.

Ahmed teaches his children in their tent in Al-Malika camp in Taiz, after the closure of the schools because of Covid-19.

Photo: Khalid Al-Banna/NRC
The coronavirus is also ravaging Yemen and schools have been closed until very recently. A father teaches his children in a camp for displaced people. Photo: Khalid Al-Banna/NRC

According to Schultz, adults have a responsibility to find out how much children understand. Adults should enter into a dialogue with the children to clear up any misunderstandings they may have and dispel unnecessary fear.

When I get stressed, I just sit there, completely empty.
Salem, 15, Iraq

“This does not mean, for example, that we should say ‘Covid-19 is not dangerous’,” says Schultz. “An important aspect of dialogue with children, whether in Europe, the Middle East or elsewhere in the world, is that we should not give them false hopes.”

“You need to stick to the truth and reality. The thing about children is that they tend to put together their own stories – which are far worse than reality – simply because they lack the life experience and cognitive ability to understand complex contexts.”

Dramatic number of children out of school

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused the greatest disruption to education in history. Nearly 1.6 billion schoolchildren and students in more than 190 countries have been affected, according to the UN.

Displaced children at Al-Malika camp in Taiz practice hand-washing to protect themselves from Covid-19. 

Photo: Khalid Al-Banna/NRC
A little boy in Yemen has learned how to wash his hands properly to protect himself from the virus. Photo: Khalid Al-Banna/NRC

NRC and the University of Tromsø are working hard to make it easier for children to receive an education, either through online teaching, or by helping students return to schools when they reopen. Most schools in the Middle East are still closed.

“When schools are closed for longer periods of time, children and young people start doing other things, such as getting involved in child labour,” says Schultz.

“They have to work to make money for their families. It could be that a family has no choice. Sometimes both parents have lost their jobs, housing costs have gone up, the family is unable to pay the rent and is evicted, and food prices have tripled.”

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting the entire world, with both a human and an economic cost. But those who live with conflict and displacement are particularly vulnerable.

Read more about the economic consequences of the pandemic

Schultz thinks for a moment before saying:

“Consider this: here in Norway, we saw that it wasn’t so easy to get all the children back to schools when they reopened. It is actually a big job to make it happen. In Norway, we saw that head teachers had to actively tell parents that ‘it is safe to come back, we have plans in place to prevent the spread of infection’ and so on.”

He shakes his head:

“This only intensifies in countries that have many more problems than we have in Norway. My biggest concern is that many of the world’s children may not return to school at all.”

“Handwashing with soap is a good way of removing dirt and deactivating any virus or disease, but what should we do while we are bare-footed?” Says Lailuma while carries her daughter standing at NRC distribution point.

“It has been two years that we have been abandoned here. We are getting poorer everyday. Now that this disease has spread we can’t even afford a soap to buy. This and any kind of assistance will be very useful,” says Lailuma. 

NRC WASH team is undertaking a ten-day hygiene kits distribution in Herat reaching to total of 7,000 families. But the families are less concern about COVID-19 virus than about the lack of livelihood opportunities and lack of food. 

“It is the season to work on the opium poppy fields and many men from this settlement, including my husband has gone to work in Helmand,” she says without any hesitations. “Men didn’t work the whole winter and it’s that time of the year that they can earn. They can’t get a job here in the city and if it’s not the poopy field we can’t make a living any other way.” 

Photo: Enayatullah Azad / NRC
Lailuma receives soap from NRC in Herat, Afghanistan. “Handwashing is protecting us from the virus. But what should we do while we don’t have shoes and are bare-footed?” she asks. Photo: Enayatullah Azad/NRC

Children get “healthy” from school

When it comes to children who struggle with stress in their everyday lives and perhaps also with traumatic stress, researchers know that it helps to go to school. Being in the classroom reduces their stress levels. They are stimulated to natural recovery.

“Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw a positive trend in education worldwide. In recent years, more and more children and young people have been able to go to school. This has gone hand-in-hand with a reduction in world poverty,” explains Schultz.

“But now, not only has that trend reversed, but the number of children receiving an education has dropped dramatically. Due to various countries’ disease prevention regimes, many children today are no longer allowed to go to school. For these students, the consequences are dramatic.”

He adds:

“This means that it is vital for NRC to ensure that there is some kind of alternative to regular school. This also includes encouraging and helping children to return to schools when they reopen.”

"Quand on a fermé l'école, j'aidais ma mère à faire les travaux ménagers. J'aimerais devenir enseignante."

Date: 05 August 2020
Location: Kaya - Center North Burkina Faso
Photo:  Innocent Parkouda/NRC
A staggering 12 million children missed up to four months of school across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger due to Covid-19 restrictions. This girl from Burkina Faso is lucky; she was able to take part in distance learning via the radio. Photo: NRC

From a national to an international effort

We are all concerned about the Covid-19 crisis. We ask ourselves: “How long will this pandemic really last?” One thing that may help us is to help others.

Norwegians are proud of their volunteer work. When something is difficult, it helps to face it with others – to show the “volunteer spirit”. When the pandemic broke out, the Norwegian health authorities called for a national dugnad, or effort, to reduce the spread of infection.

Jon-Håkon Schultz,  Professor in Education at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø.

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC
Professor Schultz visits the Deichman Bjørvika library in Oslo, where children have written down their secret wishes. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

Schultz speaks of an “international dugnad”, to which everyone can contribute – including by supporting NRC’s work so that even more children can be helped:

“It is about making a voluntary effort to help society,” he explains. “It’s a little harder to encourage volunteer work when the focus is something you can’t see so easily – like a virus.”

But the beauty of making a collective effort is that it can make us feel good.

“Here in Tromsø at least, it makes us feel good to cooperate with NRC. This cooperation feels especially meaningful right now. While we are safe and secure here up north, NRC is at work out there in the world – where things are happening.

“Together, we help children who are struggling with fear and trauma. Those of us on the research team feel like we are part of an international effort.

“That gives us hope.”

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How to reduce children’s fear of Covid-19:

  • Parents and teachers should ask children what they think about Covid-19 and correct their misunderstandings to help them feel safer.
  • Teachers can use text messages, WhatsApp or online meetings with students to ask them how they are doing, provide explanations and send reassuring messages.
  • Parents and teachers can help children identify fear and stress reactions – and understand that these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.
  • Teachers can encourage children to do relaxation exercises at home when they feel stressed. Parents can help children stick to a routine of relaxation exercises before bedtime.
  • Parents and teachers can contribute to good health by encouraging children to follow local health advice such as washing their hands, social distancing, and coughing and sneezing in their elbow.
  • To give children hope for the future, parents and teachers can help them understand that doctors and researchers are constantly working to create a vaccine. We don’t know when it will be ready, but we are already seeing promising results. Until the vaccine is ready, children and adults can feel safe by social distancing and practising good hand hygiene.
  • Positive information from the World Health Organization (WHO) is that children are less affected by Covid-19, and that most children who do catch it don’t become seriously ill.