During lockdown last year, I overheard my four-year-old daughter talking to her imaginary friend, Cracker. “You can’t see your friends anymore, and you can’t go to preschool, because of the nasty bug,” she explained to him. I stared into the open drawer of cutlery before me and tried not to cry.
My daughter is now in kindergarten and is learning from home, along with most of her NSW cohort. They have made this collective sacrifice to suppress COVID-19 – a disease which has proven mostly mild for them, but dangerous to adults.
Now, as children prepare to go back to school next month, and with no vaccine available to protect the youngest of them, it’s time for older generations to return the favour.
School closures harm all children, but multiple studies have shown how damaging they are in particular to disadvantaged and vulnerable children. At school, children have equitable access to education and benefit from the support of adults around them. That is not the case in every Australian home.
The damage goes well beyond learning outcomes. When schools are closed, teachers are also less able to keep a watchful eye over children at risk of harm. In Britain last year, child protection referrals for medical examinations fell by 39 per cent. In Florida, allegations of child abuse and neglect fell by 30 per cent. The abuse likely happened, but no one was around to report it.
As the British Medical Journal wrote in an editorial in February, “this pandemic has seen an unprecedented intergenerational transfer of harm and costs from elderly socioeconomically privileged people to disadvantaged children”.
At some point this has to end. As adults who have benefited from the sacrifice of these children, we are under a moral obligation to ensure they can now return to school safely, by enclosing them in as big a bubble as possible of vaccinated adults.
It is reassuring the evidence shows most children only suffer mild illness when infected with COVID-19, even with the Delta strain, but children with certain underlying medical conditions are at a greater risk. I can only imagine the courage the parents of these children will have to muster to let them go back to school on October 25, given there is no vaccine available for children aged under 12.
We’ve asked so much of children since this pandemic began. But adults can now show their gratitude by getting vaccinated themselves. By doing so, they will return to these youngest members of our society something of great value: a full life, with proper lessons, teachers who look out for them, and friends who don’t have to be imaginary.
Stay across the most crucial developments related to the pandemic with the Coronavirus Update. Sign up for the weekly newsletter.