by Emma Hine
As a mother, one of the first thoughts that entered my exhausted, post-labour brain, as I gazed down at my beautiful newborn baby, was, “I would die for you!” For a father, I believe that moment is often when the infant reaches out and grabs his nose or finger for the first time and fills him with that same primal, instinctive urge to protect his child, no matter what. As the baby grows to childhood and then to stroppy teen, no matter what other daily emotions might sometimes cloud our judgement, that primitive, protective instinct never goes away. We would die for our children.
Yet here we are, one year into a pandemic, which data shows is disproportionately biased away from children (in the UK, 11 mortalities below age 15, a figure comparable to an average flu year), and we are asking our children to protect us, at huge cost to their emotional and mental well-being. “Children are resilient!” I hear, time and time again. Yes, they are. But why should they have to be?
Daily new cases in the UK are now at a comparable level to the initial wave of the pandemic – 6385 daily recorded cases on March 3rd 2021 vs. 6201 (highest daily recorded case number between March-May 2020) but with considerably lower mortality rates – 315 deaths March 3rd 2021 vs 1224 (highest recorded daily death figure between March-May 2020). This is hardly surprising and represents a significant improvement in the situation, given that we now have extensive testing of asymptomatic people, when previously only seriously ill people were being tested. Added to this is the fact that over two thirds of all excess deaths last year were during the first wave, an understandable statistic when you consider that a) health care professionals, at that time, were facing a brand, new disease that they did not yet know how treat, and b) that we now have 20.5m people vaccinated with their first dose and one million of those fully vaccinated with both doses.
So, children, whose age specific IFR (infection fatality rate) has been calculated at 0.002% for under-tens, rising to only 0.01% up to 25 years of age, who have already done so much against their basic human needs, in the interest of “saving granny”, are now being asked to wear a mask for six hours a day (up to eight for many travelling by public transport). For what? To protect the adults teaching them? Their parents? Let’s not forget that the most vulnerable of those will have already earned a degree of protection from their vaccine. Yet certainly, it is not to protect each other, as we have already seen from the incredibly low IFR among this age group.
Since the virus SARS-CoV-2 and its associated disease COVID-19 first came on the scene, the general consensus has always been to reduce severe illness and death. But this focus has only ever been on the illness and death caused by the coronavirus itself. As the year has progressed and doctors have become more knowledgeable about how best to look after Covid patients, a more balanced look at illness and death should have been applied. Despite a distinct lack of concrete evidence to show efficacy of the wearing of cloth masks – a randomised Danish trial in April and May 2020 did not show statistical difference to transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between wearing and not wearing a mask in a community setting – there is a growing number of hypotheses that wearing a mask for prolonged periods of time carries potential physical risk. Whether you are on the side of the fence that believes or disbelieves these hypotheses, there can be no doubt that for children and adolescents, regardless of assumed physical risk, there is a definite emotional and mental health danger to wearing a mask.
Daniel Siegel, Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, states that all mammals create adolescent peer groups as a natural evolutionary technique for survival and that, even in humans, this primal instinct to ‘belong’ to a peer group is so strong that for an adolescent brain, it literally feels like a matter of life and death to not have connection to at least one other person in their peer group. He states that
every research study done on happiness […] or longevity, or medical health, or mental health [shows that] the number one factor in all those studies [is] supportive relationships
and adolescence is the time of life when these social connections are learnt. The NHS 2020 follow up to the 2017 Mental Health and Young People Survey (MHCYP), shows that rates of mental health disorders have increased in 5-16 year olds from one in nine young people having a mental health disorder in 2017, to one in six in 2020; and in 11-16 year olds specifically, the percentage of those with a probable mental health disorder has risen from 12.6% (2017) to 17.6% (2020). In September 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that:
Mental health conditions account for 16% of the global burden of disease and injury in people aged 10-19 years.
Half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age but most cases are undetected and untreated.
Globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds.
The consequences of not addressing adolescent mental health conditions extend to adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults.
By keeping our teens out of school for almost a whole year, we have already deprived them of one of their fundamental, instinctive needs and now, when they can finally feel hope at restoring these connections, we are asking them not only to continue not to physically connect with their peers but also to hide half of their face, in effect removing every tool they have in their communicative toolbox. A Gallup Youth Survey in 2001 found that, unlike Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human needs that places food and water at the base of its triangle and self-fulfilment at the pinnacle, 13-17 year olds responded with their most important needs being “need to be trusted” (78%), “need to be understood and loved” (77%) and “need to feel safe and secure where I live and go to school” (77%). I don’t believe there is a single psychologist who would agree that a sea of masked faces, devoid of expression gives the feeling of either safety or security.
When you consider that 46% of suicides occur in people with mental health conditions, these increases in mental health disorders in adolescents are alarming. If we do not start giving young people back their lives, then we have lost our fundamental instinct as parents. We are no longer prepared to die for our children. We are literally asking our children to die for us.