COVID-19 may not pose a deadly threat to children's health, but the lives of the most vulnerable children may yet be permanently blighted by the virus.
Yesterday, the ESRI published an alarming new study. It found that without an economic recovery this year, nearly one-in-four children could be left living in poverty. Even a partial economic recovery this year would still see a big increase in child poverty rates, to nearly 20pc.
We know the threat of recession to children's wellbeing is acute as we've been here before - quite recently. After the financial crash a decade ago, the proportion of children living in deprived households reached a staggering 32pc. It has taken the intervening 10 years for child poverty rates to return to pre-recession levels, with much of that progress now at risk of being rapidly undone in a few short months.
Childhood poverty is insidious. It is not merely a temporary hardship that children must endure in their early life, before they can pull themselves up by the bootstraps once they reach adulthood. Exposure to poverty, for prolonged periods in childhood, has been found to have a strong and irreversible impact on the physical, cognitive and social health of children. It casts a long shadow, one that is very difficult to escape.
A forecasted increase in child poverty rates is not the only canary in the coal mine when it comes to the malign influence of coronavirus on children. According to Child and Family Agency Tusla, there was a 39pc drop in the number of suspected child abuse cases referred to it in the first four months of this year compared with the same period in 2019.
The closure of schools since early March was said to be the likely reason for the precipitous decline in referrals. Teachers, who see children every day and who are alert to changes in their behaviour, are often the ones who make these referrals.
Given that last month gardaí were reporting a 25pc increase in domestic violence calls, the huge decline in referrals to Tusla is extremely ominous. It suggests that thousands of children may now be living in unsafe conditions, at risk of abuse and neglect - with little prospect of that abuse coming to the attention of social workers in the immediate future.
The impact of Covid-19 on children's mental health is also an area of deep concern. Research by the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland (CPI) has found a "worrying increase" in mental health referrals during the pandemic. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are especially ill-equipped to deal with any surge in referrals.
In a letter sent to political parties in May, CPI president Dr William Flannery noted that "CAMHS currently operates with just 65pc of the teams required in Ireland - and those teams operate at only circa 55pc of the staffing complement required by the multidisciplinary teams nationwide".
"CAMHS consultants are already experiencing significant levels of burnout and stress … The after effects of Covid-19 are likely to see levels further exacerbated. An urgent focus on fulfilling the needs of this service to ensure our future generation are given the best possible support and treatment to enable them to lead full lives will be essential," he wrote.
Given coronavirus disproportionately targets the elderly, coupled with the unprecedented economic impact of the virus, it is understandable that, in the early stages of the pandemic, there was little focus on children.
However, we are now more than four months into this crisis and it is time that the voices of children featured much more prominently in public debate. This is especially true given the Government is on the cusp of announcing a multi-billion euro stimulus package for business - with little indication, to date, that children's services stand to benefit from any imminent emergency investment.
Unless the correct policy decisions are taken now, to insulate children from the worst effects of coronavirus, another generation will be doomed to endure the same deprivation and social problems as children who fell victim to the last great recession.
A 2014 Unicef report, which examined the impact of the previous recession on the median income of households with children, found that Ireland lost a full decade of progress between 2008 and 2012 and concluded "financial adjustment measures left children behind precisely when their poverty indicators began to soar".
With the ESRI now sending out a very public warning that child poverty rates are in danger of exponentially increasing, the Government must ensure that the measures it implements in the coming weeks and months prevent this from occurring.
Of utmost importance is that the Department of Education works with schools and teaching unions to ensure that children can return to education in September. This is vital, not only so that parents can return to work; it is also essential as a child welfare measure, so that children suffering abuse or neglect do not fall through the cracks.
Services, such as Tusla and CAMHS, which have suffered chronic underinvestment for years, must also not be starved of cash or subject to any cutbacks. Instead, these services will need increased resources to cope with the inevitable surge when referrals begin to increase.
Throughout this crisis, lobby groups for businesses have been vocal advocates for their members, applying relentless pressure to government for financial aid and emergency support. Conversely, children do not have any powerful lobby groups agitating on their behalf. As Ireland continues to emerge from lockdown, the plight of children must not be forgotten. If the Government doesn't act now, the disastrous consequences for thousands of children could be life-altering. They can't say they were not warned.