(Image credit: Flickr account ‘Freedom House’, the image is at this link)
Prolonged disruption of children’s academic and developmental activities will give us a damaged generation. When they inherit the reins of society, they – and Canada – will be at a severe competitive disadvantage globally.
For well over a year now, in-person schooling and other activities for children have been continually stopped and re-started only to be stopped again. As many people have remarked, this upsets the rhythm of their development, both academic and social. The damage is immense, and across a wide range of children’s needs, all the way from infants’ ability to pick up non-verbal clues via facial expressions to the role of participation in team sports by older children, and many more aspects of development. Many experts, including doctors, have spoken up about it, but their words of caution have thus far been collectively a classic case of ‘a voice in wilderness’ so far as policy adjustment is concerned; governments are so gripped with fear of Covid-19 that no other fear registers with them.
In my research for writing on this topic, I discovered that it has been studied and reported on by professionals, including this report by Public Health Ontario. Although this report is important and valuable, its most salient characteristic is that it was prepared via searching the databases of other health entities, such as MEDLINE, Embase, PSYCINFO etc., as well as web searches for ‘grey’ literature reports (these are non-peer reviewed).
Thankfully, Sick Kids Hospital carried out an actual study (meaning a survey involving parents and children) and published its report in February 2021 (detailed data of this study is available here). I find it disturbing that this hasn’t been taken up by our media in a major way. Given the amount of time I spend following Canadian news, I found it telling that I had not come across coverage and commentary on the matter, and discovered these reports only when I actively researched for the topic. In my view, our media should be making this discussion one of their main themes of coverage of Covid for as long as this crisis lasts, given that the study by Sick Kids Hospital presents some very disturbing findings, including this one:
“One concerning finding for the study team was the significant proportion of otherwise healthy school-aged children who experienced deterioration in a number of mental health domains, including depression (37.6 per cent), anxiety (38.7 per cent), irritability (40.5 per cent) and attention span (40.8 per cent).”
Note that these numbers do not represent increases in these impacts, but rather the actual percentage of children in whose regard these impacts were reported. These numbers should therefore be alarming.
This study was conducted by contacting over 1,000 parents. This may or may not be a statistically sufficient sample. But given these findings, there certainly is a need to conduct more extensive studies, including by other relevant entities, in order to arrive at a more precise picture of how our children are being negatively affected as we struggle to cope with the crisis of Covid-19. As I keep repeating often, any policy must necessarily depend on empirical data and analysis based on studies of a large number of affected people – in this case children. Once we have such data, it would be possible to arrive at the next stage, viz. that of proposing remedies to alleviate the situation.
But there is another aspect to this unfolding crisis of children’s mental health, and that aspect is the subject matter of this article. Measuring the impacts of policies on people is only the first step; we must follow this up with envisioning the manifestation of these impacts in their lives over time. Only then would it be possible to formulate the mitigation measures to save our children from a depressing future (pun intended). In this regard, comparable experiences of other societies in other times and places offer guidance.
Before we take a look at those experiences, however, it is important to point out that the circumstances leading to mental harm for children do not necessarily have to be of the same – or even similar – order as those given to us by lockdown policies. My premise here is that since we are looking at what transpires after the mental harm has occurred, these circumstances are of secondary importance (if at all) in our discussion.
After reaching UAE, I learned that my Indian driving licence was not valid in that country, and that I would have to enroll in a local driving school in order to obtain one. Fortunately, the company where I worked was located in a Free Zone operated by the Dubai Ports Authority, so I was able to enroll in the best driving school around, which was operated by the Authority. As added good fortune, my instructor Ali Sultan was the most experienced among them all. He was from Yemen. Apart from being perfectly fluent in English, he was also highly knowledgeable in world affairs. We fell in the habit of discussing a wide variety of topics during my training sessions.
One day, I asked him why the mosque near my home would have a sign that said ‘Entry not permitted for non-Muslims’.
“Because they are idiots,” he replied with considerable agitation. His tone surprised me; normally he was very calm and composed. I asked him why he thought so. He replied that mosques were supposed to be welcoming of all people regardless of religious affiliation. This naturally led me to ask him why he thought this change in attitude may have taken place.
“Feeling threatened for long periods of time,” he responded. He then launched into a lengthy explanation of what he meant by that. Here is a summary:
The society of UAE was unusual in that while the country had not undergone situations like war, internal strife or oppressive regimes, most of its residents had experience of at least one of these, and some had had the misfortune of witnessing all three. This was because the local population was a small fraction of the total. A majority of the expatriates from various parts of the Muslim world had personal tales of suffering through dangerous periods.
The common theme running through their experiences was of fear of the people in their vicinity. Some relationships were openly hostile, while others were viewed with suspicion because anyone could be a secret informant for the ‘other side’. People who arrived in UAE with this baggage of fear and suspicion were easy to manipulate. While their personal lives were marked by prosperity and the society was peaceful, it took little to make them deeply apprehensive about something.
I remarked to Ali Sultan that during the Friday Khutba (sermon) that was fierily delivered over loudspeakers, the words that I caught most frequently were ‘Israel’ and ‘Falasteen’ (Palestine). Ali Sultan nodded emphatically; the best way to get these people to become fearful was by telling them that al Yahoud (the Jew) and Amreeka were conspiring to destroy Islam. This was quickly expanded, in the listeners’ minds, to view all non-Muslims as dangerous. Their immediate solution was to bar entry to their mosque for all non-Muslims. It didn’t factor into their reasoning that the people whom they had feared in their countries of origin had almost all been Muslims, nor did they wonder why they had positive experience of non-Muslims outside the mosque.
The years of 2006 and 2007 were especially difficult in Iraq as the internal turmoil nearly reached the level of a civil war. In the city of Baghdad only, every morning more than 100 dead bodies were being found on the streets. These unfortunate people had been killed, often brutally assassinated, in the anarchic sectarian violence that was sweeping the country. Multiple bombings were taking place every day. Venturing out of the house was fraught with enormous risk for everyone.
While western media did have a presence there in a major way to cover the story of Iraq as it unfolded, it had its limitations. This left room for unfiltered news to inform the world about the mayhem. Then a blog called Riverbend popped up online to fill this need. Its authenticity won the hearts of many. I used to follow that blog regularly. Its anonymous author gave a first-hand account of how dangerous it was for ordinary people to engage in the most routine of functions of day-to-day living. Leaving home carried the risk of death every single time.
At the time, I wondered how this ubiquitous violence, and threat of violence, was affecting the minds of children in Iraq. I am sure many of them suffer from PTSD. By now, almost all of these children (if they are still alive) are adults. I doubt if the impact of the turbulent period on their mental health and development has been studied. If someone does study it, the findings could be of immediate relevance to us in the here and now.
WILD (WEST) COURAGE
American author James A. Michener’s excellent novel Centennial is about the prairies (the story is set in northern Colorado, and covers several centuries). At one point in the novel, a teenage boy in a pioneer family declares that he would be leaving home to pursue an opportunity. His mother is naturally worried; there were myriad ways in which misfortune could befall a person in those days.
“What will happen to him?” she asks her husband.
“Life will happen to him” he replies.
TWICE BITTEN, NEVER SHY
I had a friend in childhood called Nitin. His father was the head of the forestry department in the state of Gujarat. By the time we were in our mid-teens, Nitin had announced to everyone that if they saw a snake, they should call him to capture it instead of killing it. The city of Gandhinagar has been built from scratch on what used to be farmland, and the former owners were still allowed to farm on any land that had not been developed. As a result, snakes used to show up regularly, including cobras.
In his efforts to capture and thus save the snakes, Nitin had been bitten twice. Both times, this happened just as he was putting the snake in a cloth bag – the snakes twisted their necks at the last moment and struck him on his arm. Both the times, the people around him reacted with alarm, but Nitin was unruffled. On the first occasion, he had already identified the snake as dhaman (Indian rat snake, Ptyas mucosa). It looks very similar to cobra, but is non-venomous and cannot expand its neck into a hood like a cobra does. He told everyone not to worry, because the snake was not a cobra.
The second time around, it was a cobra. Nitin coolly bagged it after being struck, and examined the gash in his arm. He knew by the look of the gash that it had been caused by the lower tooth of the snake. Had it been the fang, the wound would have been a hole (or two, depending on how the snake landed on his arm). He went home with the cobra and applied anti-septic on the gash.
One day I asked him how he would have reacted if it had indeed been the cobra’s fang that landed on his arm. He said that he always carried a kit of anti-venom when he went out to catch snakes; he would have injected it himself. “Cobras are not scary if you are properly trained and equipped” he said.
What needs to be considered in our current scenario is that children are suffering harm on multiple fronts. Apart from uneven education, they are facing mental health challenges on account of: domestic violence, parents’ stress, their own isolation and the limitations of online learning.
The especially worrisome part of the harms being inflicted on our children is the total lack of attention paid to mitigation efforts. Every leader will, at some time or another, issue a pious statement that today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders, doctors and engineers. What no one dares to mention – because it is unpleasant to point to – is that some of today’s children are tomorrow’s gangsters, fraudsters and welfare bums. It is our responsibility as a society to see to it that our children achieve positive outcomes in their lives – and we are failing massively in that regard at the current stage. As the saying goes, it takes a village – but in our capacity as the villagers, we are asleep at the wheel.
What is this collective failure likely to beget? What will its consequences look like?
THE RIGHT AGE
When I was doing a talk show on radio, a host for another program commented (in an off-air discussion) that we are living in the digital age. I felt that the term ‘digital age’ did not sufficiently capture the state of technology that is embedded in the lives of the vast majority of people. Therefore, I countered that the digital age had long been surpassed by several waves of technological development; each could be called a different ‘age’.
Before digitization, we used to store data and images magnetically, on tapes. Invention of disks to store them digitally ushered in a new age; this was the ‘digital age’. However, the stored material was accessible in an extremely local manner, either on a single computer or a group of computers in close proximity to each other. It was with the advent of the internet that access became universal and instant. I realized this when I started reading the New York Times and other US publications while I was in the UAE: we were in the information age. Later, when it became possible for readers to post their comments to news stories and articles ‘below the line’, in real time no less, we entered the age of participation. One could ‘participate’ independently as well, by creating their own ‘blogs’ and later even videos, and uploading them on to the ‘net. This yielded a mixed creation / participation age.
The introduction of social media coupled with the advancement of technology for mobile devices catapulted this latest stage into a very different arena; creation of internet-ready content required fewer resources and less time. For example, a person witnessing a situation of interest anywhere can record it on their phone or mobile device and upload the video from right there in practically no time for the whole world to view.
At each of these stages, emerging technology has created a far reaching impact on how people live, interact with each other and make a living. To be clear, these changes have not made all previous approaches obsolete. But the new ways, overlaid on the existing structure, define what is cutting-edge and thus carry the highest rewards. However, there has also been a precondition: in order to benefit from the changes, a person must possess a set of ‘soft skills’ and personal attributes that can be readily applied to the new situation.
We do not yet know what turn the world of technology will take next, but it certainly is possible to make a tentative list of soft skills and personal attributes that might play a deciding role in achieving success in that world. Here is my (possibly partial) list of such skills:
- Ability to bond with others quickly, especially when it is known that the relationship will be short-term or modular
- Willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone
- Openness to accept people from the outside in their sphere
- Self-confidence in experimenting with new ideas
- Resilience to setbacks, and persistence in the face of failure
- Realistic assessment of risks and opportunities
The way I see it, our policies to deal with Covid-19 are putting our children at a disadvantage on each of these counts. Meanwhile, in other countries, greater success in dealing with Covid-19 means that their children will suffer less on the developmental front. The disparity will put our children at a considerable – perhaps decisive – disadvantage in terms of competition, and that will be our collective fault as a society.
I prefer to stay away from religious ideas in my writing, for several reasons. One of these reasons is that people’s thoughts on religious matters vary greatly, and this variance can derail a conversation rather quickly. However, sometimes these ideas can be very apt even beyond the context of religion, so it should be possible to make an exception now and then. Apropos of the topic under discussion, I am reminded of a fragment of a poem that I had read many years ago:
In the lost childhood of Judas was history made
For thirty coins of silver, Christ was betrayed
What cost are we going to have to pay for millions of lost childhoods?