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‘Think of the Children’: Covid-19 and our Young People by Francis Gahan

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The phrase ‘think of the children’ is a cliche which is often heard in contemporary parlance and it’s rhetoric appears to have it’s origins in an increasing societal concern for the welfare of children in the late 19th century in western society. Nowadays, it is a phrase that is sometimes used sarcastically or for comic effect. Some might recall this as being an utterance of Mrs. Banks in Walt Disney’s 1964 production of Mary Poppins. Mrs. Banks’ contention seems to have been rooted in ‘moral panic’ as she pleaded with her nanny not to leave her position as ‘carer’. Such a departure would apparently have had a detrimental affect on her children as she had believed. It is a phrase that continues to be used as an appeal to the ‘emotion’ and to plead for emphathy with the core moral and ethical concerns of a particular issue or situation. Arguably, it is an expression that is worthy of individual and collective attention at such an exceptional time in our unfolding history.

As Covid-19 began to take physical hold on the respiratory systems of individuals, it was also taking a metaphorical grip on local communities, our education systems and on social and economic pursuits. As a result, each has had to learn to ‘respire’ in it’s own restricted way until such a time as life returns to normal functioning once again. Arguably, ‘normality’ as we have known it may not return until a vaccine for the virus has been successfully trialled and sanctioned. From the outset of Covid-19, concerns have been fixed upon medically treating those who had contracted the illness, on containing viral-spread and on implementing measures to ‘flatten the curve’. Amidst the uncertainty that has swept across the world are our young people who have been required to adjust to ever-changing norms as they have done for the past number of months. For some, this adjustment may have meant more cherished time with siblings and parents. For others it may have resulted in increased exposure to domestic violence and abuse. For many it has meant the absence of routine, specialised education or life-skill development and may have thrust such children into a world of uncertainty, anxiety or despair.

From the outset of Covid-19, actions were continuosly taken by government to address health concerns which included the temporary closure of schools. Out of this arose feelings of further uncertainty for both children and parents and there was a degree of parental panic which was evidenced in the rush to local supermarkets to bulk-buy what were considered by many as being essential rations at the time. Such feelings were initially interweaved with a sense of excitement for many children as my observations allowed and this was in part enabled by a certain lack of understanding of the implications of the virus. Furthermore, there emerged a sense of surrealism for family members as children were ‘rescued’ from the school gate for the last time in ‘who knew how long’. This ‘rescuing’ of children was reminicent of occasions from my youth of heavy-snow weather or those of instances where a plumbing or electrical fault had occurred.

In the early stages of ‘lockdown’ concerns relating to the impact of Covid-19 on children were centred on how they would be home-schooled, on how parents would adjust to maintaining the balance between working from home and on keeping children entertained while they adjusted to new working norms. Media content and indeed the direction and advice provided by schools was centred on such issues. Furthermore, schools appeared to have gone to lengths to create frameworks and direction for parents in how they might manage the challenges of maintaining such a balance and on completing the cirriculum. As the story of Covid-19 unfolded, questions and indeed related advice appeared to turn to issues of anxiety due to what might have been a lack of routine, of being seperated from school friends and whether children were getting enough exercise or not.

As we enter the ‘loosening’ phase of the initial Covid-19 restrictions, it is becoming ever-evident that many children who had been curtailed in their normal interactions with their peers, cousins, and friends are once again beginning to reap the benefits of social interaction, free play and the joy that social relationships bring. Despite the easing of restrictions and given the uncertainty that still exists at this time in relation to how schools will manage their reopening it seems that the anxiety levels of children will be a variable in the equation of future decision making. It may also transpire to be a point of leverage and justification for decisions about how to reopen schools.

Whilst it is a welcomed thought that children themselves and concerns for their well-being have been included in the ongoing narrative of the Covid-19 pandemic, such a contention also raises numerous questions that will likely be answered as the credits eventually roll on Covid-19. On a most fundamental level we will know whether or not our society actually did ‘think of the children’. In particular, much interest will be focused on whether all children including children with special needs, children with learning and sensory impairments and those of socially deprived or difficult family circumstances have been held at the heart of decisions and support of our society. A Ghandian assertion is that ‘the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats it’s most vulnerable members’ and this will be at least one of the lenses through which we retrospectively view this event in our history.

It could be argued that as the Covid-19 story initially unfolded, the archetypal child at the core of ‘child-centred’ discussions and decisions was one of the nuclear, two parent, middle-income family. It also appeared that such a child was one of non-disability and one whose priorities had been those of ensuring that mainstream education was not interrupted by the restrictions. It seemed also that central to media discussion was a concern that they would be provided with sufficient opportunity for free play, communication with wider family members including grandparents and that they had access to sufficient technological entertainment. As lock-down restrictions continued, there has been a voicing of concern from the corner of ‘other’ children including those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, those who may be living in situations of abuse or neglect which itself was is likely to have been exacerbated by the imposed conditions of lock-down. The question must be asked as to whether children of deprived backgrounds or those with special needs have been afforded the support and attention on an equal level as the aforementioned ‘archetypal’ child from the beginning of this crisis and if not, why not?

Advocates for children and charitable organisations have been aware of and indeed vocal on such issues from the outset. Rosita Boland’s report in the Irish Times (April, 2020) was based on an increase of 25% in calls to Childline since the beginning of Covid-19. This, as she discussed was in part due to the fact that children ‘can’t get away’ from domestic violence at this time which is often fuelled by alcohol misuse and which has been further exacerbated by ‘lock-down’. There have also been concerns raised over the impact of ‘isolation’ on children with special needs and in particular those who have been diagnosed with autism. Autism often carries with it a reliance on structure and regularity for the individual. Conditions imposed by Covid-19 have resulted in increased distress and as Carl O’ Brien also of the Irish Times (April, 2020) describes, the ‘meltdown’ of such children. A study by Inclusion Ireland (April, 2020) highlights the significant impact of ‘lock-down’ on children with special needs. Of particular concern is the impact on such children and their families due to a lack of educational support for such a prolonged period of time. Many of these parents have been required to work from home, some have been working on the ‘front-line and all have been expected to continue to support their childrens’ social, behavioural and educational needs with little or no support. Such research identifies that many children have been left behind and are indeed regressing at this time.

Furthermore, in June of 2020, Down Syndrome Ireland described as a ‘shambles’ the exclusion of children with Down Syndrome from the July Provision Scheme despite the Minister for Education’s initial decision to include this cohort in the scheme. This has come as an an extra body blow to parents who are already dealing with increased caring responsibilities and many have expressed the inability to access and understand guidelines around special education during the Covid-19 crisis. It is an unwelcomed thought that such decisions in relation to support for children is reflective of our societal concern for what might be described as ‘vulnerable children’. These are but a number of examples as to how children with special needs or those who live in undesirable circumstances continue to be affected, discriminated against and excluded based on their disabilty or family situation during the current pandemic. It would be no bad thing that, through the ‘Ghandian lens’, we might continue to watch, act and react to concerns of all of our children during the Covid-19 pandemic. Let us hope that regardless of how long this health crisis continues that lessons are learned, the needs of all young people are tended to and that in time we can reflect and be proud that we did indeed as Mrs. Banks advised- ‘think of the children’.

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