It is often quoted that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The moral identity of a society is based not on what past atrocities it inflicted on its people, yet rather on what actions it takes to learn and prevent engaging in these actions again. Sadly, over the past 19 months caring for mostly low income pediatric patients in a large safety-net hospital system, I cannot help but conclude that when it comes to the COVID-19 public health mandates directed at our nation’s children, our country has done this before.
On February 19,1942 President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that led to the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans as well as thousands of German and Italian Americans for over 4 years. This complete loss of civil liberties and human rights arose from a hysteria that this demographic of individuals posed a threat to society at large.
I cannot think of a more fitting parallel to how our nation has targeted our children as being the greatest national security threat to the spread of COVID-19 despite science proving otherwise.
Very early on in this pandemic science revealed that children played little role in the spread of COVID-19 compared to adults yet for unclear reasons our public health response, influenced by ideology over science, decided that they were to be the human shields necessary to protect adults.
Never before in my pediatric career and prior public health and preventive medicine training have I seen such a perversion of public health policy that has not followed the evidence and put at risk for harm one vulnerable population to protect another. Any public health or medical intervention must consider the balance of benefit and harm.
Nelson Mandela once said “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”. Just ask Dr. Margrethe Greve-Isdahl, the director of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health who stated early on in the pandemic, “The view in Norway is that children and youth should have high priority to have as normal a life as possible, because this disease is going to last…They have the lowest burden of the disease, so they shouldn’t have the highest burden of measures.”
In Norway, children were not required to wear masks at school and yet scientific studies have been published highlighting their success of keeping schools open despite high community spread of COVID-19.
Yet to peer into the soul of the United States we only need to look back to our response to the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. Did we shutter schools and sports and impose isolation, educational loss, worsening obesity, and immeasurable adverse child experiences on our children to stop H1N1 spread? No we did not, because H1N1 targeted children and young adults (Eighty-seven percent of deaths occurred in those under 65 years of age with children and young adults having risks of hospitalization and death 4 to 7 times and 8 to 12 times greater, respectively).
You can believe that if it were the reverse and H1N1 targeted adults, we likely would have closed schools because unlike Norway adults are more valued than children. The H1N1 virus is now a regular circulating flu virus and I suspect COVID-19 will be the same.
Now upon the start of the third academic year of this pandemic with pediatric hospitalizations from the highly contagious delta variant only a fraction of adult cases and orders of magnitude lower than 2019-2020 influenza admissions, and deaths even more rare, our public health departments once again target our K-12 children with mask mandates and school quarantines in a vain attempt to make schools zero-risk environments. This is to prevent what is the common cold in the vast majority of children with the purpose of protecting adults who with vaccination have the ability to protect themselves.
Even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) attempts to assuage parents with the absence of evidence that prolonged use of masks leads to delays in speech and language development despite evidence that it does. Yet per the AAP one should not worry if there is a language delay because parents can just refer their child to Early Intervention to remediate such delays if they occur.
Sadly, however, our nation’s Early Intervention Services have been rendered nearly completely ineffective in the less than 3 year old age group due to loss of access to in-person in-home therapy to ineffective telehealth services as a pandemic response of protecting adults over children. Few if any of my developmentally delayed patients in this age group made any meaningful progress with remote therapy services which denied them the benefit of intervening during this critical window of development.
Tragically, in this public health war on our children we have learned that they are dying not from COVID but from suicide which is the result of denying them school, sports, and socialization with their peers.
Children have now lost two years of progress in educational basics, and that is the least of it. They have been systematically trained in germaphobic paranoia to treat their peers and adults as pathogenic disease carriers whose presence is a threat rather than blessing. They have faced the demoralization that comes with constantly changing rules, instability of both home life and education, seen their houses of worship closed, and been coerced into a tedious life of endless screen time that is devoid of human warmth.
It took 30 years for another U.S. president to rescind Executive Order 9066 and another 12 years for Congress to pass the Civil Liberties Act which stated that government actions had been based on “prejudice…hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” History has truly repeated itself with a vengeance directed on our children. Perhaps 30 years from now our country will yet again acknowledge these catastrophic harms we are now inflicting on our children due to our generation’s prejudice, hysteria, and failure of political leadership.