Five-year old Sarah has never been to school. She has only met her classmates and her teachers through a screen.
Eleven-month-old Ditiksha has hardly seen any human faces without masks except for her dad, mom and her nanny. She thinks humans wear masks and is learning to identify people behind the face cover.
Two-year old Alice has not yet played with another kid her age. She has not been to a big gathering either.
Eight-year-old Aadi celebrated his birthday online. His friends wished him through a screen when he blew candles and cut the cake.
These are the Covid kids growing up in the shadows of a pandemic. Their laptops are their school campuses. Their teachers are virtual beings who appear every morning on their screens to rattle out lessons. Their classrooms and playgrounds are the same.
Their world has shrunk inside the four walls of their homes thanks to a killer virus without any apparent expiry date. These children think a common cold and fever are life-altering diseases. They grow up washing their hands more frequently than they soil their clothes. They are forced to mask up and keep a social distance if they are lucky to sit in a school bus or enter a classroom.
Growing up in a world ravaged by the pandemic, this is not the ‘new normal’ for Covid kids. This is simply the normal. This is the everyday reality for children born after SARS-CoV-2 pandemic emerged in Wuhan, China, in early December 2019.
It is a strange world that we, as adults, are struggling to wrap our head around. It is this world of lockdowns, travel restrictions, work from home; this world of fear and panic, death and illness, that children have been baptized into. And the impact it can have on their mental and social development is far-reaching, health experts and parents fear.
School closures and long periods of online learning is one of the biggest changes that has impacted children. According to Unesco, the education of nearly 1.6 billion children has so far been affected by the pandemic in 190 countries.
Schools in the UAE also switched to online or hybrid learning for the most part of 2020 and 2021. It stripped children of social gatherings and interactions with their peers and teachers.
As we write the story, majority of schools in the UAE have decided to go back to online learning - yet again - as the number of daily infections in the country soars past 2,700.
Shifting the gear again to online learning has posed a a big challenge to many children, say parents.
Shivani Maheshwari, an Indian parent in Dubai said it was a “big transition” for her 9-year-old son, Aadi when he had to start physical classes three months ago after more than a year of online classes.
“Our children were taking online classes all of last year and also most part of 2021 until KHDA (Knowledge and Human Development Authority) made it compulsory. We were really scared that they would bring the infection home,” said Maheshwari.
She said the "adjustment problem" affected her son more than her daughter, who is in Grade 7.
“Aadi was a bit of an introvert. So, he had become very comfortable sitting at home and not having to interact with his peers. He was even taking his PE and yoga classes online. We had to work hard to encourage him to get excited about school. Now, it has gone for a toss, as we are back to square one,” said the parent.
She said her son has become "shy" to meet people ever since he became confined to his home. “We even had his birthday online where kids played some online games and storytelling. As parents, it is thin line we have to walk between keeping them safe and facilitating their social skills,” admitted Maheshwari.
Though children are believed to have mild Covid symptoms, the pandemic has robbed them of valuable social interactions that are imperative for honing communication skills.
Deep Chaudhuri, a businessman in Dubai, said he is “worried” what the pandemic will do to his daughter in the long run. “She is just 11 months old and we are doing everything to protect her. But growing up without seeing other people except her mom, dad and nanny is not healthy. She has not met her grandparents yet,” said Chaudhari.
“We limit our outings and social gatherings and as a result, she has not seen many faces without masks. Now, she has learned to recognise people behind the masks.”
Older children are already showing signs of stress and anxiety from social isolation.
“I miss seeing my friends. I cannot play with them when there is no school,” said 6-year-old Antony. “I love football and my school has big playgrounds. There is not enough space in the house.”
His sister Catherine, 8, misses going out on picnic with her friends.
Speaking to Khaleej Times on condition of anonymity, their mother L.B., said her children are anxious.
“Catherine gets moody and sometimes refuses to talk about what is bothering her. Her brother is hyperactive and has difficulty following instructions,” said the parent. Both of them are going for therapy and L.B. says it is helping them.
Child psychologists and doctors around the world have already raised the alarm on the impact the pandemic is having on children’s mental health.
For instance, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, mental health visits to the United States emergency departments from mid-March to October, 2021, for children aged five and 11 increased by 24 per cent. A 2021 survey by the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany found that roughly one in three children is suffering from pandemic-related anxiety or depression.
Affirming the fears, Sara Costa, a recreational therapist at Al Jaleela Children’s Hospital, Dubai, says she is seeing an increasing number of children who grapple with mental stress, anxiety and learning issues.
“Fear and anxiety are high among children. They are growing up hearing and experiencing fear and panic. Many are socially isolated. It will take a toll on them if not addressed properly,” said Costa.
She said she uses playing to address cognitive, emotional, physical and sensory issues while dealing with children. "It is a holistic approach that children can relate to.”
According to her, messaging is crucial for children. “If we build a climate of fear by asking them to wash their hands and not to touch or hug friends because they will get sick, it will have a negative impact. Instead, we can teach children self-care, and hygiene is a form of self-care. So, there is no fear-mongering but the message is delivered,” said Costa.
Child psychologist Andrea Tosatto says wearing masks can definitely have negative bearings on children’s ability to learn and understand emotions. He said they will find it difficult to decipher emotions through facial expressions when the world is hiding behind a mask for fear of the virus.
“The ability to read emotions comprehensively, clearly and without obstacles is absolutely important in all children and especially in the autistic population. Lip reading is essential in the language acquisition phase regardless of the child's hearing ability. This becomes overwhelmingly necessary when learning to write. The child learns to write correctly also thanks to a clear, articulated and simplified dictation through obvious movements of the teacher's mouth,” said Tosatto.
According to him, a masked teacher is a teacher who is half effective when it comes to communication.
While protecting children from the virus, he warns that parents should be careful about not developing phobias and obsessive-compulsive behaviours among the younger population.
“We do not want them growing up thinking that it is not normal to exchange a pen with their mates or shake hands or hugs. We have to strike the right balance,” said Tosatto, who had worked at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology, Dubai.
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