Covid-19’s deleterious impact on youngsters

I am sitting in my living room in Lagos, trying to steal a moment of calm between news reports and the playful demands of my young cousin, Hassan. For so many around the world, the pandemic has upended our lives: schools are closed; a lot of people are working from home; we’re isolated. In fact, Covid-19 has us under siege, and I am reminded in a way of how children remain the victims of the virus and our response to it – in many other ways. From increasing rates of mental health problems to concerns about rising levels of abuse and neglect and the potential harm being done to the development of babies, the pandemic, no doubt, is threatening to have an overwhelming bequest  on the world’s youngsters.  To be sure, social interactions of children have been severely limited under the pandemic to the extent that most of their extracurricular activities have been canceled and they have been discouraged from leaving their homes. Take school closures for instance— either partial or total; compelling evidence abound of how damaging school closure is to children’s education. To begin with, schools are not only an institution for learning but also a place that avails children the opportunity to socialize and develop emotionally. Likewise, peer interactions and relationships  are how kids learn not only about cooperation, but also about themselves, understanding and expressing their own emotions, making thought out decisions, coping with challenges and accepting responsibility. In this case, therefore, children are not only missing classes, but are also missing out on opportunities for development.

But it is not just about the closure of schools. The stress the pandemic has put on families, with rising levels of unemployment and financial insecurity combined with the stay-at-home orders, has put strain on home life virtually everywhere. Even so, one of the pillars for overcoming adversity is interaction among people, which is being compromised by isolation, leading to increased stress in both parents and children.  One thing we also know with great certainty is that increase in parental stress, the suspension of classroom activities, social isolation measures, children’s exposure to toxic stress, especially in previously unstructured homes, and a lack of physical activities pose serious risks to children’s later development, affecting their language and cognitive development, their emotional wellbeing and putting them at risk of depression and anxiety. In fact, to say that children will not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic  pandemic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and pandemics.

Interestingly, a recent research by  immunologists has also shown how Covid-19 lockdowns may be preventing kids’ immune systems from maturing. This according to the researchers is because the immune systems of children are not designed to develop in isolation from the microbial world. They further argue that our bodies are covered inside and outside with microorganisms that, under normal circumstances, happily cohabitate with us and help to promote a healthy immune system. If infants, toddlers, and young children are not sufficiently exposed to the microbial world around them, their ability to properly regulate their own immune systems can be compromised. As a consequence, children in lockdown for over a year now are at risk of developing allergies, asthma, and auto immune issues according to the research. Finally, children may not be the face of this pandemic, but they risk being among its biggest victims, as their lives are being changed in profound ways. All children, of all ages, and in all countries, are being affected, in particular by the socio-economic impacts and, in some cases, by mitigation measures that may inadvertently do more harm than good. In any case, it has to be stated that parents and families have to be present to guarantee the harmonious development of children, which suggests that the current unsettled situation of the family is bringing a lot of disharmony to children with grave  implications for their mental health. There is, therefore, increased need for psycho-social assistance to families and children during this time. In this wise, creation of activities to promote health and healthy development and prevent toxic stress becomes a priority in order to improve the individual health of children, adolescents, their families and the intellectual and working capacity of these individuals over the long term, with positive economic and social results for the society.

In the same regard, prevention and response to violence against children must be high on the political agenda in the context of recovery planning, which must cover mental health, sexual and reproductive health, while being sensitive to age, gender and diversity. We have seen that being forced to stay at home exposed children to domestic violence and to tackle this, government and appropriate authorities need to, as a matter of importance, implement an intersectional and integrated approach to the pandemic. This includes tackling gender-based violence, making remote education accessible, and supporting vulnerable and economically disadvantaged households. Living in a universe that is already out of their control, children can become especially shaken when the verities they count on to give the world order get blown to bits, which is what they are experiencing now. They therefore need all the help and attention we all could muster to prevent them from being deeply damaged by the effect of the pandemic. We know that the world would eventually defeat and overcome the coronavirus, with Covid-19 pandemic assuming its place in the canon of global traumas. Before then however, the onus is on us to keep our youngsters safe from the deleterious impact it threatens to have on their mental health and overall development.

  • Yakubu is of the Department of Mass Communication, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Nigeria.

 

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