Children are a precious gift from God; they are vulnerable and need to be cared for. Jesus prioritised children in a society where they were not generally valued. Over history, Christians have campaigned for the welfare and rights of children (especially the most vulnerable), founding orphanages and schools and being instrumental in the ending of child labour and the provision of education for all children.
As a paediatrician, I have become increasingly concerned about the balance of benefit versus risk for children from the measures and restrictions that have been implemented as part of the response to COVID-19.
Back in early 2020, when COVID-19 first hit the UK, nobody really knew what to expect; there were fears of devastating numbers of deaths, and knowledge of who would be most at risk was minimal. Blanket restrictions were put in place and schools were closed. Children, as well as adults, were confined to their homes, only allowed out for a walk for an hour a day. Play areas were cordoned off. We were told it would take three weeks to flatten the curve, but as we now know, we are still living with significant restrictions almost two years later.
So, what is the impact of some of this on children, and how should we think about this as Christians?
As we consider some different aspects there are two key things I think we need to bear in mind:
- COVID-19 poses minimal risk to children themselves.
- Adults should care for and protect children. Children should not be put at risk to protect adults.
The most vulnerable children
In my clinical practice, I mainly see children with developmental disorders. Many of these families struggle day to day to manage their children’s difficulties and to function as a family. For these families, things such as support groups, visits from support workers, therapy sessions and access to education are vital. Yet, for an extended period of time, most of these things were suspended. Even social workers and health visitors did not visit in person; only telephone or video call support were available. I saw in my clinics families who were becoming increasingly desperate for help and support. The impact of this on young children’s development cannot be underestimated – they will not just catch up. Early development is heavily influenced by the world around a child.
Access to education
Many children were denied access to school for many months. They missed out not only on important academic education but also on the crucial social aspects of being with their friends, as well as physical exercise. Childhood obesity was an increasing concern even before children were confined to their homes for months.
Although schools were fairly quickly opened for vulnerable children, the reality was that many of the most vulnerable simply did not return. Despite concerns for children’s welfare, schools’ hands were tied if parents stated they didn’t want their child to risk becoming unwell.
Measures such as social distancing, restrictions on meeting up, and wearing of face coverings have often been seen as easy, low-risk interventions that have a significant impact on the transmission of the virus. Children need to be considered differently to adults and the risk versus benefit of interventions needs to be considered differently.
Children need social interaction in order to develop. Young children need physical contact, and they need to see adults’ faces to develop language and communication. Denying these things to children can have a significant impact on their ongoing development. Older children and teenagers need to see their friends, to socialise away from their parents. We already know that mental health problems are a big concern in young people and during lockdowns, there has been a significant increase in children presenting with mental health issues.
As I write this, children have just returned to school after the Christmas break, and the government has recommended that children over eleven should wear face coverings at all times in school or college. This means that these children (but not their teachers) could be wearing masks for six to seven hours a day when you factor in travel time! In contrast, the majority of adults are likely only to wear them for short periods (if at all), even in office environments. The evidence that wearing face coverings has any significant impact on the transmission of the virus is simply not clear, but the impact on the wellbeing of children is significant – difficulty in communicating, increased spots and skin problems, headaches, bacterial and viral contamination (children are not good at keeping masks clean or putting them on and off correctly). In addition, the wearing of face coverings by children appears to be predominantly to protect the adults around them given the minimal risk posed by COVID-19 to the children themselves
This is a hugely controversial area that cannot be adequately covered in this overview. However, as we consider the preciousness of children, their vulnerability and our God-given responsibility to protect and care for them, the biggest consideration is whether vaccinating children against COVID-19 is to protect them or to protect adults. Given that COVID-19 is a mild illness in all but a very few children with underlying health conditions, is it justifiable to give a vaccination that can have significant short term side effects (such as myocarditis) and as yet unknown long term side effects in an effort to protect adults?
Children and young people (especially those most vulnerable) have suffered disproportionately from many of the measures implemented over the past two years in an attempt to protect vulnerable adults. Protecting children and ensuring their wellbeing should be a priority, especially for Christians. God’s command to those who are strong – who have agency, power and a voice – is to ‘Defend the weak and…uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed’ (Psalm 82:3), to ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy’ (Proverbs 31:8-9). Let us do all we can to promote children’s wellbeing in a holistic way and stand against any moves to use them as shields to hide behind.
Julie Maxwell is a community paediatrician