The English novelist, Daniel Defoe, provides by far the most piercing account of what a pandemic can inflict on the general population in his A Journal of the Plague Year. The work graphically describes the bubonic plague outbreak in London in 1665 which killed almost half of the population in the city. The people were too poor to move out of the epicentre of the scourge. One of his recurring themes is the impact the disease had on children.
“The children,” he writes, “ran away from their parents, as they languished in the utmost distress: and in some places, though not so frequent as the other, parents did the like to their children; nay, some dreadful examples there were, and particularly two in one week of distressed mothers, raving and distracted, killing their own children.’ Children have generally been at the receiving end of humanitarian catastrophes, be they natural or man-made.
Their position is made all the more vulnerable because across a large section of the challenged population, their status is at best one of neglect. In fact, records reveal that very little by way childrencentric management planning actually takes place as society grapples with the issue of handling pandemics. In spite of the progress made in our civilization in terms of handling the outbreak of humanitarian disasters, one sphere that has been consistently neglected has been the ways and means by which the devastation can be mitigated or at least minimized amongst children.
The fact that children do realise the need to know that something life-threatening may be occurring during a pandemic and that they may not have the maturity to process information concerning the pandemic which offers both knowledge and relief to an adult. As such, the minds of children often become active breeding grounds of fear of suffering and death, debilitation, depression, and a host of queries which remain neglected and unanswered.
To this issue is added the fact that in contemporary societies where unitary, single-child families are the norm, the lone child is left to himself/herself to psychologically deal with the pandemic and its scars. Disruption in basic necessities of human beings not only requires an adjustment at the material level but more significantly, at the psychological level. Most adults struggle to come to terms with such disruptions around us. Clearly, with poorer information and understanding, the psychological impact on children and their enormously debilitating potential can hardly be surmised.
The usual management strategies for handling children and adolescents during such extraordinary times would revolve around creating distractions through a continuous and meaningful set of accurate information and activities and to evolve a time-barred activity replacement to take care of the void caused due to closure of schools. Another mode would be to enable children to connect with friends and remote families through the electronic medium.
In a poorly developed and economically challenged society, a large section of our children are left to themselves in their uncertain, lonely worlds. Left to parents, most children are left without any share of accurate information and understanding of the situation around them since parents are usually challenged themselves to cater to the more immediate needs of food and physical health. Also, the use of the electronic medium through telephones are still a luxury for over 70 per cent of our children.
Restricted to the walls of their homes, most of our children are left with no material or psychological options to deal with the effects of this pandemic. However, the dismal scenario is not only limited to the underprivileged children. Children whose families are well-endowed are faced with another set of psychological crises, different, but no less serious than their less privileged brethren.
Children in urban areas are being made to continue their education in a medium which is not only radically different from anything they have encountered before, but is also risking their physical and mental health in several ways. Internet based teaching, while sometimes useful, can vastly impact a child’s psyche as well as optic health. As the world moves to lessen screen-time on the electronic mode, it is perhaps ironical that we are forcing our children to spend hours before an electronic screen, struggling to talk, hear, see and comprehend the system of online education.
The stress of some schools on live-streamed online classes appear more out of a concern to give a semblance to ‘continuity’ in education for considerations which go beyond academics and venture into the financial. What is neglected entirely is the vital fact that time can also be spent as usefully by observing the surroundings through television, reading books meant for leisure, newspapers, unstructured and unplanned hobbies, etc. and in the long run such activities can form the fulcrum of education as a way of empowering children and helping them grow.
We live in a country where the digital divide is pronounced and there is little point in widening this divide by imposing a stressful digital environment on our children in the name of education. The vital issues of online safety for children, including online bullying and undesirable internet content, are also brushed under the carpet in the mad rush to appear modern and digitally futuristic. Ironically, in these days of lockdowns and restrictions in movement, we are enforcing digital education without research on the impact that it can have on the physical and mental health of our children.
Pandemics that disrupt living universally are rare and mercifully many of our children will not be facing such a catastrophe in their lives after the present one subsides. However, the impression they form in these days of disruption of their studies, play, interaction with friends, and frequent encounters with separation and death, will trouble them for a lifetime. It is imperative to take care of the impressions on a child during such an adverse environment because such impressions would be defining the world-view of our children as they become men in times to come.
Long after this pandemic is over, our future generations shall judge us not only through our humanitarian acts of omission and commission but more importantly on how we have managed our children in a calamity and helped them tide over this crisis as the most vulnerable section of humanity.
(The writer is Assistant Professor in English, Pritilata Waddedar Mahavidyalaya, Nadia, in West Bengal)