Published 10 May 2021
Though the news out of China and Italy in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic brought little to celebrate, one bright spot for me was that there were very few children among the dead.
This virus has been horrific, but it could have been worse. Try to imagine a disease that poses a high risk of death or disablement to children. What would we have done in response to such a virus?
Polio – 1946
In response to a local polio outbreak in summer 1946, the city of San Antonio, Texas shut down schools and dance halls for a month to limit the spread of the virus – which was deadly to children.
Acting on the (now known to be incorrect) theory that the virus was transmitted via mosquitos or flies, local communities also sprayed DDT, which the US banned in 1972, throughout neighbourhoods in an attempt at source control.
Neither of these actions was particularly effective. Until the deployment of polio vaccines in 1955, the virus continued to kill and paralyze hundreds of thousands of people around the world each year – a significant proportion of them children.
Looking back, it is tempting to shake our heads at the useless and often harmful actions undertaken to address the summer polio outbreaks. How could they not see – as we do now – how little difference those efforts made in controlling the disease?
But we should not be too quick to judge. Back then, we didn’t know how polio spread (i.e. via oral-faecal transmission, which usually points to contaminated food or water), and children were at risk.
It is clear that, at the heart of those public health policies, there was an admirable commitment to protecting children.
COVID-19 – 2020
It will not take decades for people to judge the irrationality of this generation’s treatment of children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Young people face a low risk of mortality from novel coronavirus infection. The US Center for Disease Control’s best estimate places the infection survival probability at 99.998 percent for children from ages zero to 17.
There is also substantial evidence that infected children are ineffective disease spreaders and that open schools are not primary drivers of community spread. And these aren’t new revelations. We knew much of this by March or April 2020.
Nevertheless, public health authorities shuttered schools, playgrounds, youth sports, parks, beaches, and (yes) swimming pools and dance clubs. They even masked toddlers. For more than a year, these decisions have robbed children and young adults of the activities and interactions that bring them joy and promote their growth.
This meant no babies copying smiles and frowns, no playdates, no basking in the sunshine on playground swings, no whispering secrets to friends, no attending in-person school, no learning to work as a team, no camping in the desert, no awkward (and exhilarating) first dates, no prom or homecoming dances, and no graduation celebrations – among countless other lost opportunities and experiences.
Can we honestly say that these public health orders had, at their heart, the well-being of today’s children and young people?
The debate over the efficacy of these restrictions in stemming COVID-19 case growth will continue elsewhere. In this issue of Collateral Global, we will tell stories of the loss and pain that young people have endured throughout the pandemic.
The human costs of the past fourteen months of extraordinary public health orders – particularly their effects on children – demand a full reckoning. We must attempt an accounting – if we, indeed, have their well-being at heart.
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Jay Bhattacharya is a professor of medicine at Stanford University and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is the director of Stanford’s Center for Demography and Economics of Health and Aging, and he serves as Collateral Global’s Editor-in-Chief.