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Childhood, interrupted: Ruining young lives will not quell our existential fears

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This piece was originally published on Medium.com, 25 July 2021. It was removed, along with my entire writer’s account — all 83 essays including several commissioned and curated Medium features “Due to the elevated risk of potential harm to persons or public health.”

They think it’s dangerous to talk about the depravity of what pandemic restrictions are doing to kids.

I think it’s dangerous — and morally untenable — not to.

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In 2020, I watched — first with disbelief, then shock and horror — as schools around the world closed and children were masked and isolated. I could not understand what was happening or why. The data was clear: COVID-19 was not a significant threat to children — far less so than the risks we already tolerated every day from sports, car rides, swimming, or even from the freshly verboten flu.

Top 15 Causes of Death for 19y.o.-and-under in 2019 https://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10.html

How were we not all on our knees with gratitude that this virus did not take children with a fraction of the frequency with which it took adults? Deaths of children with COVID, although undeniably tragic, are exceedingly rare.

In the time that it took to accrue roughly 400 C19 deaths in kids, more than 50,000 American children under 17 years died of all causes.

Deaths-by-age with COVID-19 since Jan 2020 (19mo.) https://data.cdc.gov/NCHS/Provisional-COVID-19-Deaths-Focus-on-Ages-0-18-Yea/nr4s-juj3

I figured the panic would subside and the restrictions would be temporary. We couldn’t justify continuing to take from our kids. After all, national school closures had never been instituted — or even considered — before and the Doomsday scenarios initially modeled became further divorced from reality by the day.

But even last fall — six months in — the facts had little bearing on public perception. For example, the actor Ryan Reynolds made a headline-grabbing statement just as school was set to resume in August that “thousands” of young people were dying from COVID-19 in Canada and insinuated that the public just didn’t know. He raised the specter of some unseen entity secretly stealing our children.

And, instead of fact-checking his statement, the media amplified it.

Eleven months later, the cumulative total of deaths of Canadian young people is still off Ryan’s terrorizing assertion by at least two orders of magnitude. And the article has never been corrected.

That was just one false media claim of too many to count, which all seemed to push panic as a public health strategy.

But regardless of the media’s obvious incentive to sensationalize, their hyperbole and myopia didn’t change the reality that children were spared.

And given that fact, I believed there was no way we could be shutting down children’s lives for the sole purpose of shielding the elderly. The average age of a person who dies with COVID in most wealthy nations is higher than the average life expectancy (in the U.K., for example, it’s 82). Someone surely would come to their senses. There is a natural order to life, and the pandemic response was in clear violation.

In the pre-2020 world, the welfare of children was a universally accepted (although not always perfectly practiced) priority. The importance of nurturing young people was not up for debate. Adults intuitively sacrificed to ensure that kids had what they needed to grow and thrive. Of course, some children had more resources than others, but the underlying value was the same. On the whole and up until that moment in history, kids came first.

And these weren’t just feelings, they were facts. Tending to children “followed the science.”

Then something in the ethos changed.

In this new world in which we now find ourselves living, that once-sacred order is inverted. Children must be restricted to protect the old. Their defining milestones and experiences are capriciously delayed and canceled by people who already experienced them. Kids’ faces and airways are obscured to alleviate the anxiety of the unmasked adults around them.

Children’s value — which was once predicated on their role as the literal future of humanity — has been perverted, now centering on their utility as shields for the elderly.

They’re regarded as vectors of disease and shamed for putting adults in danger by daring to openly breathe or talk in public. The natural arc of life has been willfully set aside.

It’s a world I no longer recognize — an aberration of values and theft from the young that I will never support.

It hits too close to home.

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One of my babies lost her life before she even entered the world. And, at the time, I did not know how I would find the strength to carry on.

When she was born, she emerged impossibly tiny — no bigger than my palm — and completely still.

Remarkably different she was from my other three, who were born fierce and unrelenting in their demand for the delivery room’s attention. Her facial expression was so peaceful — like a sleeping cherub on a faded cathedral ceiling with invisible wings. Her heart had stopped beating the day before, and she never drew a single breath.

My sweet Matilda — named after Roald Dahl’s redoubtable young protagonist — died in my belly, and of all of my failures as a parent, this ranks among the most psychologically brutal.

As I held her in my hands, I grieved for her imagined future — for all the things she would never try or feel or do or see. I grieved that she was denied the triumph of her first steps and the pain of the bruises she would accumulate while practicing for them. I mourned the terror of walking into her first day of kindergarten and how her face would beam like the sun when I picked her up six hours later. I grieved that she would not get to grow up with three older sisters who would serve as both her bullies and her protectors, but — when it mattered most — her built-in support system to guide her through a beautiful life (hopefully) filled with more joy than pain. I grieved because, having lived a mere 29 years by that point, I was already well acquainted with how positively charmed — and utterly tragic — life could be.

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But she’d never know. The whole of her impossibly brief existence occurred while sheltered inside my body. And I was so, so sad for her.

When my grandmother died the very next year, I grieved her, too. I had the distinction of being the only grandchild at her side when she passed. We knew, of course, that she was not immortal, but when she caught pneumonia, she deteriorated quickly and I was the only one of my generation living in close enough proximity to arrive in time. I was honored to be there holding her hand as she, too, went still: not so tiny, but no less perfect than her great-granddaughter, whom we had lost almost exactly 12 months before.

She died with 82 years of joy and pain etched into a face framed by strands of wiry grey and obstinate brunette.

Her body was peppered with scars from laying down the motorcycle that she rode well into her 60s, multiple cancer resections, and generally taking on all manner of risks that people told her she could not or should not attempt. She died having been joyfully married at 18, tragically widowed at 50, and having borne four daughters — just like I eventually would. She was the matriarch of a clan of 30 and counting, and she left behind the legacy of a life well lived.

When she was gone, I missed her so so much.

She had been a constant in my life, and her passing was a disquieting reminder of my mortality. My rank in the natural order shifted forward at that moment, and only one generation remained standing between me and my own final breaths.

The grief of my daughter’s death was not the same as the grief of my grandmother’s death. Gauging strictly by loss, my grandmother’s death should have been more difficult. I had known my grandmother my entire life. She was as much a part of me as any limb or organ. She guided me and comforted me and impacted my trajectory in too many ways to count, and I missed her terribly — but there was comfort in knowing that it was simply her time to go. She had lived fully and had no regrets. Her arc was complete, and despite the loss, there was so much to remember and celebrate.

Despite never having met my daughter, her death was infinitely more challenging to process than my grandma’s. It felt like a cruel injustice — because it was. There was no space for reflection or joy — only despair and regret. Canceled potential. Unnatural theft of kinetic energy.

And it’s because the arc of her life never even began its rise.

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Some of the days to follow were more difficult than others. I can still conjure the feelings — now 12 years later — of pure heartbreak and hopelessness. What got me out of bed each day — what most helped the sadness slowly migrate from the front to the back of my mind — were the three little faces delicately constructed of my dad’s steel-blue eyes and framed with my (now ex-) husband’s dirty blonde ringlets that peeked around the corner of my bedroom door each morning. Those precious, perfect, and ever-changing faces did the impossible — they eased the sadness of my loss, dulled the pain in my chest, and dissolved the irrational anger I felt toward the sun for having the audacity to rise when I was so clearly suffering.

Tending to their needs fulfilled mine, and knowing how much they depended on me to deliver was the emotional fuel that kept me going. I would sit up, and they’d run in and jump on my bed and ask for eggs and bacon and chocolate milk. They’d inquire as to where we’d be going that day and what we might do. And I couldn’t bring myself to deny them the care and experiences I’d committed to providing when I brought them into the world, just because things were difficult for me.

Watching them grow and thrive because of my efforts facilitated my healing more than anything else.

But — truth be told — the inherent injustice of my daughter’s stolen life is still with me. And it has triggered some existential fears about my living children’s survival, as well. Both are etched into my face, just like my grandma, and will pass on with me when I die, too.

The point is not to conflate the death of an infant with prolonged school closures. It’s to describe the difference between my daughter’s death and my grandmother’s — to highlight why children are so valued and just how important it is to put their needs first.

We have an obligation to make them a priority and not to dismiss their losses with the wave of a hand. And to wit, the comparison stands: My grandma’s death was sad, and yet, her life was fully lived. My daughter’s death was tragic — because her opportunities were stolen.

And — like so many kids whose futures have been involuntarily put on pause since 2020 — she’ll never get that time back.

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An iota of empathy was the sole requirement for acknowledging how educational disruption and social isolation (and eventually compulsory masking) could impact our youngest generation. Recognizing that impoverished and disabled children would bear the greatest brunt did not require an MPH or a Ph.D. in epidemiology. It was easy to see that, without the resources to purchase individually tailored, hand-delivered alternatives, non-wealthy children would simply have to do without the nutritional support, therapies, ESL classes, extracurricular activities, community resources, protective eyes and ears of mandatory reporters, and more generally, access to the single-greatest external factor influencing socioeconomic mobility: an education.

But kids are resilient” never sounded so sinister.

I believed there was no conceivable way we would let millions of children fall through the cracks of the very system designed to support them.

And yet …

Restrictions not only persisted; they intensified. When schools finally reopened — some more than a year later — they looked more like correctional facilities than communities of learning.

The message to the children came through loud and clear:

“Your role as a disease vector is central in this new schema — rising above all else — and your opportunities must be severely restricted to keep adults safe.”

Even now — 17 months from the first school closure — we know with unflinching certainty that COVID presents a negligible risk to kids. Not only that, but we have access to vaccinations that substantially reduce the likelihood of severe disease and death in at-risk and fearful adults. Yet, school districts around the country are already planning in-person restrictions for kids this coming fall. At that point, we will be waist-deep in Year Two of interrupting finite childhoods with indefinite restrictions.

And all of this leaves me no choice but to ask: “What problem does this solve? Who is all of this meant to protect? And why can’t we give those people the tools to protect themselves, while protecting the ones who cannot? Why have we become so obsessed with a single respiratory virus that literally nothing else — including the future of our children — matters any more?”

It doesn’t make sense.

Those first budding friendships wherein we learn what it feels like and means to care about someone outside our immediate family — they matter. Learning to read people’s expressions and developing empathy and communication skills — those lessons matter. As we get older, the final exams. The school trips. The dances. The graduations. First time living away from home. First relationship. First heartbreak. First job interview. Those things matter so much. They not only help kids learn and grow, but they give kids experiences to look forward to before their brains acquire the ability to conceptualize the future. They motivate and incentivize — two things every person needs for good mental health.

My grandmother got to experience all of those. Matilda didn’t get any.

And it is a big deal to interrupt and delay them. It is such a big deal that we should only be considering doing so in the direst of circumstances. Childhood lasts a brief 18 years, and the window for maximum neuroplasticity is finite. We are taking opportunities away from them that they can — and will — never get back. And when the experiences and activities they value can be discarded with the pop of a single positive PCR test — what do children have to look forward to? What can they count on?

“Well, at least they’re alive!” does not hold up as a justification when they were never at risk of death in the first place.

“Well, at least I’m alive!” is a more honest response.

Because none of this is for the benefit of the kids.

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It should not be a matter of debate that many children are suffering. And not simply the little ones who can’t recognize their classmates’ faces because of masks or those who were denied early intervention services meaning their developmental delays will persist longer than necessary.

Teen mental health — which was already teetering on crisis — has been decimated. Eating disorders in young people are on the rise. Overdoses are at record highs. And it is not hard to wrap one’s brain around why. What is the point of protecting or nourishing a body that sees no path forward? Why not turn to alcohol or drugs when there are no life experiences available to get high on? That “Why not?” pulls a lot more weight with a person who has nothing to lose.

And how long do we expect children to endure the message that they are responsible if their elders die before they begin to internalize that guilt, shame, and self-loathing? Never before have we asked children to be the keepers of their parents’ and grandparents’ health. It is adults who are supposed to sacrifice for them — not the other way around.

And all of this should be moot because, no matter how many times we tell ourselves that the restrictions are justified to protect our children, the facts simply do not support it. And repeating Well, unless they stormed the beaches at Normandy, they have nothing to complain about is not only cruel and absurd, it won’t erase the truth that this didn’t have to happen.

Dismissing their suffering doesn’t fix it — it only silences children’s pain so that adults are spared the guilt of hearing it.

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It’s literally adding insult to horrifying injury.

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So how can we right this ship when it is so far gone?

Right now, children should be preparing for a normal return to school, especially given that kids are not responsible for COVID and schools are not significant transmission sites. They should be looking forward to seeing their old friends and making new ones, with their beautiful faces exposed, miraculous immune systems trusted, and airways unobstructed. They should be able to hug each other and hold hands and show physical affection and camaraderie. Six-foot spaced dots should be scraped off the floor, thrown in the trash, and all remnants of plastic barriers removed.

And when that first day of school finally arrives, they should be thanked for their sacrifices and allowed to express their anger and disappointment at what they lost.

They should be asked their opinion on how canceled events might be made up or recreated — and we need to action as many of those re-dos as possible because they will help suffering kids feel validated, proactive, and whole. Schools need to support the legions of children who suffered learning loss in catching up and be patient and understanding when they struggle. We need counselors specializing in social/emotional development available to help those who are now scared of others or afraid to take their masks off — kids who are suffering diagnosable mental health disorders as a direct response to the restrictions. And the prevailing message we send needs to be:

“You are valued, you are welcome, and you are safe. What happened isn’t your fault, and we are going to try our best to fix it. And we will not do it again.”

But the most important thing we can do for our kids is get a grip on our own anxiety and stop projecting it onto children.

We are all going to die. Every single one of us. Seatbelts won’t stop it. Socially isolating won’t stop it. Locking ourselves in our homes won’t stop it. Segregating unvaccinated people won’t stop it. Restricting children’s opportunities won’t stop it. ZeroCovid policies won’t stop it.

And — at this point — a reasonable person has to wonder: How much of this hysterical response is about our inability to confront our own mortality? How many people who say, If it saves one life … are really concerned about their own?

Have we become so insulated from and fearful of death that we are willing to sacrifice our children’s childhoods to the false god of immortality?

Because if so, accommodating that fear will be a costly and tragic indulgence.

Like many parents, I would take a bullet for my children without a second thought. But that willingness or ability to sacrifice is not — and should not be — reciprocal. I would not expect or want my children to step in front of a bullet — metaphorical or otherwise — for me. Frankly, I would not allow it, even if it would “only” hurt or maim them.

I have been, thus far, blessed with 42 years on this earth. Not as many as I expect, but enough to have enjoyed my fair share of life. My oldest has had less than half of that. My youngest, a fourth. Their lives are worth more than mine, and they deserve a chance to live them. So even when life is challenging for me and their needs costs me something I want or need, I always put them first. They are entitled to a future, and they depend on me to provide it. Right now is their turn. I already had mine.

And that is the natural arc of life.

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The insistence that we must choose between the well-being of children and saving lives is false, and the idea that “wanting children to have access to normal life means that you want to murder old people” is a destructive projection of our own fears. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The world can keep turning while we work to preserve the remaining years of the older people we love, and we do not have to deny and restrict children to do it. We do not have to turn our backs on one to save the other.

But, for the sake of argument

If we were forced into a Sophie’s Choice between the futures of the old and the young, whose should we prioritize?

For me, the answer is obvious.

And you would not have to twist my arm to get me to step in front of that bullet.

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John F. Kennedy famously said, “Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.”

Regardless of what this virus — or any other virus/crisis/tragedy — brings, if we do not course-correct and put our children first, the circle of life will be fractured.

And that may ultimately leave humanity not only morally bankrupt — but with no future to protect.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was originally posted on Medium but was deleted, along with all of AJ Kay’s work for Medium. She subsequently posted the piece on Substack, and it is reprinted here with permission. If you would like to get more of her “dangerous” words and “wrongthink,” please consider subscribing to her Substack here.

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For any inquiries, contact Amnon Free Press (Amnon Jobi Jakony) by writing to editor [at] amnonfreepress.com. Discover a world of hyper-local news below.

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