The lost generation: a global assault on children and young people

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Michael Jackson

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Michael Jackson

24 February 2023

4:00 AM

Last week, Australia’s children’s commissioner, Anne Hollonds, spoke passionately about the myriad impacts children and young people had endured due to Covid lockdowns and school closures. She outlined, for example, the mental health impacts like self-harm and depression and highlighted those children living with poverty and disadvantage had suffered the most.

‘There is a concern about potentially a lost generation of children, who at a very critical stage of their development didn’t get the support they needed,’ she said.

I wholeheartedly agree. But what makes this tragedy greater is that none of this needed to happen – not in Australia, not in New Zealand, not anywhere.

In mid to late March 2020, approximately 150 countries across the globe followed each other lemming-like into lockdown – a feature of which was school closures. Children were ordered to stay at home. Lessons would be given online. There were, however, a few problems with this plan.

Firstly, children and young people were at minimal risk from Covid. The age-stratified risk profile of Covid was already becoming well established at the time of lockdowns, and children and young people were in the lowest risk category. The World Health Organisation formally recognised this as early as April 15, 2020, when they said, ‘Children are not the face of this pandemic…Thankfully, children have been largely spared from the severe symptomatic reactions more common among older people’. Schools weren’t, therefore, closed to benefit children, but to satisfy parents, politicians, media, and unions.

Secondly, lockdowns and school closures would inevitably have a profound effect on children’s health and wellbeing. UNICEF published the following on March 20, 2020: COVID-19: Children at heightened risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation, and violence amidst intensifying containment measures. Moreover, years before the pandemic, the strong associations between education and health and life expectancy were well established. Shutting schools for prolonged periods was not only going to be bad for children’s health and wellbeing but might even shorten their lives.

And lastly, the effects of lockdowns and school closures would not be borne equally. TES (formally the Times Educational Supplement) published an article entitled, For the poorest, school closures are devastating on March 20, 2020. The same WHO report dated April 15, 2020, clearly states (in bold!) that children in the poorest countries, or those from lower socio-economic classes in more developed countries, would be most impacted.

Despite these warnings, and the rapidly growing mountain of evidence that all three factors were playing out exactly as predicted, countries around the world simply doubled down, with many keeping schools closed for substantial periods. To give a sense of the scale, UNICEF estimates that 1.6 billion children suffered some education loss during the pandemic while 168 million were kept off school for almost a year. If we assume 200 school days a year, that alone equates to 33.6 billion days of severely impacted learning and lost in-school experiences.

In India, school closures dragged on even longer – in some cases up to 2 years. A 2021 study highlighted the catastrophic nature of these closures. ‘In rural areas, only 8 per cent of sample children are studying online regularly, 37 per cent are not studying at all.’ Appalling numbers, yes, but surprising? No. This kind of impact was predicted. This is, after all, a country where vast swathes of children can’t afford shoes, let alone smartphones, laptops or the broadband needed for online lessons.

On top of school closures, children and young people were also abused both physically and mentally. In the Philippines, children between the age of 5 and 15 were not allowed to leave their houses for over a year, let alone go to school. Those that did break curfew were subjected to cruel and degrading treatment. Some were locked in dog cages as punishment. Others had their heads forcibly shaved or were stripped naked and forced to walk home. In the UK, the then Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, blamed under-30s for the September 2020 ‘second wave’. He guilt-tripped them when he told BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat listeners: ‘Don’t kill your gran by catching coronavirus and then passing it on.’ In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (yes, them) found increases in both physical and emotional abuse during the first year of the pandemic, with vulnerable children and young people disproportionately harmed.

When children and young people were lucky enough to return to school the abuse, sadly, didn’t stop. Most had to wear masks. Children were put in ‘bubbles’ and forced to socially distance in class (some with Perspex barriers between them). They were also instructed to socially distance from their friends in the playground. Many were subjected to regular PCR or lateral flow testing and had to scan QR codes when entering class. In some countries (e.g., USA), students attending public schools and care facilities were (and many still are) required to be fully vaccinated – despite the fact they are at minimal risk from Covid, may already have natural immunity and the vaccines don’t stop transmission. Remember – this was a group least at risk from Covid. The most depressing aspect is we knew that fact right at the beginning of the pandemic, yet we just kept on doubling-down. So much for following the science!

The impacts of the closures, protocols, and abuse will take years to fully research and understand, while the long-term damage for many will be irreparable. For example, millions of children, particularly in the developing world, have already vanished from their respective education systems, greatly impacting life chances. We may also be sitting on a mental and physical health time-bomb. Evidence of that is already being published by the bucket-load. I have personally spoken to numerous students who remain deeply scarred by the closures and their treatment.

Most importantly, we will need to rebuild trust. Children and young people should have been able to trust that, when the sh*t hit the fan, the adults-in-the-room would protect and nurture them. Instead, we instantly sacrificed their health, wellbeing, and futures on the altar of panic and performative Covid protocols.

At the launch of The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in May 1995, Nelson Mandela started his speech by saying, ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ And oh, how revelatory the past three years have been!

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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