The impact of the lingering global pandemic on children under the age of 12 is of critical interest. What started out as baby steps in understanding the severity of the outbreak and its implications is now turning into a horror show for not only the world’s children but also their parents and guardians. This is a global crisis and, for some children, the impact will be life-long.
The pathogen’s impact is really about the full psychological effect on a particular generation. The coronavirus infection evoked grave concern globally. However, it seems that children received less attention due to the milder form of the illness at the start of the pandemic. Evidence-based data is needed urgently to bridge the gap in understanding the clinical spectrum of COVID-19 in children.
On May 10, 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration expanded its emergency use authorization for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to include adolescents from 12 to 15 years of age. Previously, the Pfizer vaccine was authorized for use in those 16 years and older. For now, this is the only vaccine authorized in the US for anyone under the age of 18. Vaccine-related side effects are mild and include pain at the injection site, tiredness, headache, chills, muscle pain, fever and joint pain. Pfizer has also started testing the vaccine on children younger than 12. Other countries are following suit with their own vaccine remedies in children.
The potential losses that may accrue in learning for today’s young generation, and for the development of their human capital, are hard to understand and project, but the outlook is not good. A total of 188 countries imposed countrywide school closures during the pandemic, affecting more than 1.6 billion children and youth.
Specifically, schools for more than 170 million children under 12 globally have been closed for almost an entire year due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Thus, all parents and those legally responsible have a moral obligation for their children’s health welfare, especially during the multi-year pandemic. In order to re-enter school, vaccines are necessary. Many parents will be uncomfortable with a choice between vaccinating now or waiting, especially with the rise of the more contagious and possibly more dangerous delta plus variant.
Remote learning was implemented to compensate for loss of classroom time. In many cases, this worked for adults. But for children, remote learning is an entirely different matter. At least one in three of the world’s schoolchildren, almost 500 million children globally, was unable to access remote learning when COVID-19 closed their schools.
Significantly, the actual number of students who cannot be reached by remote learning is likely significantly higher where remote learning policies and the presence of the necessary technology at home were lacking, illustrating another inequality. In this environment, children are unable to learn and develop significant skills — gaps that may last throughout their lives if attention to the issue is not sharp, quick, and efficient.
This period of global infection has specific effects on children’s psychology. Research shows that the desire to return children to the classroom setting is more urgent than ever given that school closures have affected children on many fronts, from academic and social interaction to equity, food security and mental health.
Safely returning children to in-person instruction this fall is a priority, though it appears unlikely in some jurisdictions. This means that the increasing use of vaccine passports and other types of certification will increasingly be required to attend class. This identification system helps to create a new generation that is more deeply wired into a biometric society.
Globally, the inequality issue regarding children is the most serious result of the pandemic since children experience poverty differently than do adults. According to UNICEF, about 150 million additional children are living in multidimensional poverty, without access to education, healthcare, housing, nutrition, sanitation or water, due to the pandemic.
UNICEF tabulated data from 70 countries and found around 45 percent of children were severely deprived of at least one of these critical needs before the pandemic even hit. And although the current figures paint a dire picture, the situation for children living in multidimensional poverty is likely to worsen unless national governments and the international community step up to soften the blow.
Given global geopolitics and geo-economics at this juncture, the response time on the issue of children’s safety and welfare is severely in trouble.
Finally, the psychological toll is acute in children. According to research, parents of children aged from 5 to 12 reported similar worsening psychological conditions among their offspring. To be sure, there has been a large decline in pediatric mental healthcare usage since the start of the pandemic. While access to mental health services via telehealth has increased, mental health services via schools are practically nonexistent. Children face loneliness and isolation in light of pathogen public health safety measures.
Children are humankind’s future. Generations X and Y and others are maturing and now responsible for their children’s success in pandemic times despite tough odds. To be sure, when COVID-19 era children come of age, their ability to function in a post-pandemic world may be troublesome without appropriate policy interventions now.