Let the children go outdoors
For over a year now, minors—especially young children—have borne the brunt of the Philippines’ draconian quarantine policies. Indeed, since the original “expanded community quarantine” declaration in March 2020, children have been forbidden to go out of their homes.
Perhaps, for a period of days or a few weeks, this kind of exceptional measure is understandable, especially at a time when the virus was poorly understood and the risks were unquantifiable. Surely, a few weeks of sacrifice would not be in vain if it would usher in a return to freedom. As the lockdowns dragged on for months, however, and as it gave way to a confusing array of acronyms—ECQ, MECQ, GCQ, MGCQ—this policy of “kids must stay at home” has persisted, all the more now that “NCR Plus” is back to ECQ, and practically none the better after an entire year.
This policy, I argue, is based more on our—and our policymakers’—prejudices and preconceived notions about children and the outdoors, than it is on scientific evidence. We know that because good ventilation is key to preventing COVID-19; open air activities are actually the safest during a pandemic, with very minimal risk of infection for as long as physical distancing can be practiced, something which is easier outdoors than indoors anyway.
We also know that children require outdoor play as an important component both of short-term health and long-term physical, mental, and social development. And while they can also play indoors, outdoor play brings additional benefits like sun exposure (which has benefits beyond the immunity-boosting Vitamin D), more engaging exercise (e.g., cycling, sports), and appreciation of nature. Crucially, time outdoors allows children to interact with a range of humans and nonhumans that will contribute to animating their life, improving their life skills, and fostering creativity, intelligence, and leadership.
“But we cannot allow children to go to the malls!” People might say. But this assertion only betrays a pathology in our pandemic response: our failure to distinguish between indoor spaces like malls, and outdoor spaces like parks and green spaces. Even if certain outdoor areas are plausibly high-risk for children, surely this does not apply to the majority of settings in the country, which brings me to another pathology in our response: “one size fits all” policies.
Keeping children indoors is an untenable policy, and cannot be continued without posing significant and lasting harm on the health and well-being of children, families, and communities. Even before the pandemic, the recommendation for children to have at least an hour of physical activity to ensure healthy development has been difficult, and we have not yet fully grasped the ramifications of the lockdown—now reputed to be the world’s longest—on our kids.
It is also inequitable: While the policy technically covers everyone, its impact is much more profound on the urban poor and middle class who have no open spaces within their homes, no access to nature, and no time (or transport) to bring their children to outdoor venues. In contrast, gated communities have been more open to physical activity, even as homeowners associations can be as draconian as their government counterparts.
To be clear, I am not advocating for a complete reversal of policies. We are in the middle of a pandemic and we all have to curtail our activities. But it doesn’t have to be an “all or none” proposition. For instance, we can limit the number of people in one venue and require adult supervision so children can maintain physical distancing, or wear masks when this cannot be done (there is no evidence of the benefit of face shields in outdoor settings).
As for LGUs, they can invest in personnel who can regulate and facilitate safe play in outdoor venues, perhaps assigning those who are currently staffing largely unnecessary checkpoints. And, because there may be no such outdoor venues to begin with, the government should invest in more parks and green spaces.
Last year, I was among those who called on the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) to let the people go outdoors. Thankfully, they listened, declaring the outdoors an essential activity. But while adults have been able to go out—albeit with absurd restrictions—children have been left behind. And so this time, even amid ECQ, I call on the IATF and all concerned anew: Let us not get in the way of physical activity, fresh air, and sunshine. Let the children go outdoors.
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