The children, the children

By: Michael L. Tan - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/CDN Digital | January 06,2021 - 09:18 AM

It happened one summer, some 60 years ago, when I was in a boat that nearly sank in a freak accident. We were four kids, with three adults — a boatman, an uncle, and my maternal stepgrandmother.

The boatman and my uncle, an athletic man in his 30s at the time, jumped overboard immediately to keep the sinking boat afloat, ferrying us to safety even as my stepgrandmother kept calling out, “I’m old, I’m old, save the children, the children!”

I thought about her as I prepared my column for today and how it seems these days, we adults are doing the opposite, forgetting the children, ironically the ones for whom we are saving the world.

In one of the world’s longest lockdowns, we first sequestered anyone below 21, adjusting it only recently to those below 16. Most hard hit are urban poor kids, but even upper-class kids who have the run of gated subdivisions are talking about stress from online classes, from missing friends, from limited movement.

The lockdown is creating a silent epidemic of physical and mental problems among our young (and the elderly, but that’s for another column).

Mental health professionals throughout the world have issued many warnings about the effects of keeping children locked up, enumerating the adverse effects from the many deprivations: fresh air, sunlight, physical movement, mental stimulation. An example of what we overlook: good coordination and balance comes from walking and running in natural environments, with uneven terrains, so different from our homes. Another example: 20/20 (not 2020) vision comes from being able to look out to the distance, which you can’t do locked up in the house.

Spain, which had a very strict lockdown for kids below 14, realized the harm they were doing after two months and began to allow, almost mandating, that kids be allowed outdoors each day, accompanied by adults, within a kilometer from their homes. No parks, no sharing of toys. Still limited, but much more than what we’ve offered to Filipino kids.

Sequestration has reduced playing and social interactions. The kids keep in touch with friends on their gadgets but it is not enough, they tell me, craving for face to face, physical contact.

It’s become clear this pandemic will stay on for some time, so it will be counterproductive to tell kids it will be over “soon.” Assure them it will still be rough sailing but we are all doing our part to fight the virus and that we will always be around to support each other.

That will include our four-footed friends. My kids don’t live with me right now so they were missing our dachshund, which was stranded with me in Manila. I finally agreed to a “timeshare”—my dachshund now shuttles back and forth, dividing the week between two households to provide emotional support. Now I’m the one having anxiety attacks when she’s on duty with the kids.

We have to keep vigilant about kids needing special care: maintenance medicines for conditions like congenital heart disease, asthma, diabetes. The recent reports of maltreatment of kids with autism, in Cebu’s Plantation Resort and in a restaurant, remind us the pandemic is allowing ignorance and bigotry to endanger more of our special children.

We’re not even talking yet about kids with depression and anxiety disorders, and worse.

And the out-of-school children, some roaming the streets, will be a major problem in the years to come.

Being an educator, I worry too about the lack of longer-term planning in schools. Curricula and degree programs have to be reviewed now: Popular programs like business, tourism, and hospitality, the health professions, engineering, the performing arts badly need to be reconfigured for the future both in terms of content and the way they are taught.

If indeed we go back to face-to-face classes in a few months, then we should have clearer rules around ventilation in particular, now identified as a major variable in COVID-19 control. Are our classrooms, cafeterias, dorms ready? Driving through Manila’s university belt the other day, I shuddered thinking about all the cramped rental spaces (including “bedspacers” who share sleeping quarters by shifts, one during the day and the other at night). Serious COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported in Western countries’ dorms despite their relatively large spaces, so imagine how the virus will race through our cramped dorms.

The disaster that is COVID-19 came from generations of neglect of public health. Now we scramble for short-term solutions and forget the longer-term problems. We need to do more to ensure that the young will not just survive, but thrive.

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