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We Sacrificed Their Childhood at the Altar of Our Choices

We Sacrificed Their Childhood at the Altar of Our Choices

140,000 school pupils in England are absent 50% or more of the time
Between 20-30% of 5-15 year old boys are expected to have a mental health disorder by 2030

There are few doubts that the COVID-19 health crisis was and is an emergency that threatens the “life of the nation.”

Fiona Mitchell, ‘Enhancing the Use of Children’s Rights Impact Assessments in Ordinary and Extraordinary Times to Understand the Rights of Children Subject to Statutory Intervention in Family Life, 27:9-10 The International Journal of Human Rights (2023) 1458.

During the heady days of February and March 2020 my first daughter was approaching her third birthday. I remember that time dimly now, as though peering at it through a fog. The main recollection I have of my emotional state was that I was deeply concerned about what was going to happen to my daughter and children like her. Not because I was worried about the virus, you understand; I was one of the (it seems, very few) people who was actually keeping tabs on the stats and knew that the modal victim of the disease was somebody in their late 70s with two comorbidities.

My worries stemmed from the –to me– self-evident point that children need to socialise and that this is critical to their healthy development. I was terrified there was going to be a lockdown and that my daughter would end up suffering as a result.

It is a very strange feeling to be the only person amongst one’s friends and family who is worried about the application of a measure which everybody else seems to think is the only way to stave off a threat which you consider to be infinitesimal. One day I will have to try to explain that feeling to my grandkids. But irrespective of my own feelings, the lockdown of course happened, and my overriding concern was making sure that my daughter got as normal a childhood as I could manage in the circumstances.

I knew the law, so I knew that I was permitted to leave the home at any time and for as long as I liked if I had a ‘reasonable excuse’ (not once a day for one hour, which was what government ministers and journalists were all leading people to believe on TV), so I simply took the rules at their word. I had a reasonable excuse, which is that I had a toddler in the house. So we just went out. All the time. We went to the beach. We went to the park. We went for walks in the country. We went to the shops that were open (I think we went to the local Tesco more or less every day for several months). I did barely a lick of work.

But I knew that something bigger was at stake, and I was determined that when it came to my own child my conscience was going to be clear; I was going to do the most I could on her behalf. My wife was a lot more worried than I was, naturally enough, but she was willing to entertain my (to her eye dangerously lax) strategy, and so that period of March-June 2020 was basically non-stop outdoor wandering for my daughter and I.

(I quickly discovered that I was not the only one doing this: there was a small cult of parents who, like me, were chiefly worried about the social development of their children, and who one would encounter from time to time when out and about – surreptitiously letting their kids play on the swings or kick a ball around on a patch of grass. Generally, these partners in crime of mine were happy to let the kids play together; I owe a never-to-be repaid debt of gratitude to an anonymous Turkish man I met out in the country one day who let my daughter fly a kite with his own children.)

The reason I recount all this now is not to put myself forward as Dad of the Decade. We were amongst the lucky ones in that by July 2020 my daughter’s nursery was open and remained so thereafter. I do not wish to contemplate how hard it must have been for, say, a single mother with school-aged children. And we in the UK have reason to be thankful for small mercies – at least here mask-wearing was never required for those aged 11 or under.

But I do want to establish from the outset that my own response as a parent to the news about Covid-19 was not based on complicated modeling, or carefully calibrated impact assessment, but on a simple, informed calculation of risk, combined with the love that a parent has for their child. I knew my daughter wasn’t at risk, because the evidence on that was clear by February 2020. (Anyone who tells you that ‘we didn’t know anything about the virus’ at that time is either spouting porkies or doesn’t know what he is talking about.) And I wanted the best for her. So what else was I going to do? The issue, in other words, was not in the end very complicated. I did what I thought was right.

There are people out there, however, who do want to make out that things were terribly complicated, indeed almost irremediably complicated, and some of them have contributed to a recent issue of the academic journal The International Journal of Human Rights, which is all about Children’s Rights Impact Assessments (CRIAs) and ‘the lessons’ of Covid-19 within the specific context of the Scottish Government’s response. It makes for fascinating reading, providing as it does an insight into the mindset of people who should from the very outset of the ‘crisis’ have had children’s best interests at heart – that is, children’s rights advocates – but who still to this day cannot bring themselves to accept that the problem with respect to children’s rights during the 2020-21 period was lockdown itself, and not the fact that it was somehow badly implemented.

In the background, I think, there is an abiding sense of shame amongst children’s rights advocates about how badly they dropped the ball during the first lockdown, which manifests itself in a determination to ‘learn lessons’ for the future, but I of course concede that this might just be projection.

Including the introduction there are 11 articles in the journal issue, each having been written by one or more experts on children’s rights and who was involved in an independent CRIA (conduted in early 2021) commissioned by the Scottish Children and Young People’s Commissioner. Clearly, going through all of the articles forensically is beyond the scope of this Substack post; instead, let me take you through the five key themes that emerge within them, as I see it. Each in essence boils down to a single fallacy, writ large.

1 – The Managerial Fallacy, or, the idea that one could have reconciled all of the problems with lockdown and come to an implementation of the policy that could have worked for everyone if only one had done sufficient tinkering with it.

There is I think a universal feature of human psychology which prevents us from acknowledging that our decisions always involve trade-offs, especially when we agree with the decision that has been made. And so we see across the board blithe appeals being made to a fundamentally managerial ideal in which all of the i’s could have been dotted, all of the t’s crossed, and all of the loose ends tied – indeed, in which nobody actually needed to suffer any negative consequences of lockdown at all – if only sufficient technical know-how had been applied.

Hence we could have ‘used an evidence-based analysis of impact…to avoid or mitigate any potentially negative impacts on children’s rights [from lockdown]’ (p. 1462); we could have used CRIAs to ‘gather and assess data’ so as to ‘ascertain the extent to which individuals were disadvantaged during the pandemic’ and ‘ensure a constant opportunity for reflection on human rights implementation…[gain] a deeper understanding…and drive future change’ (p. 1328); we could have ‘optimised the state’s ability to…contextualise the ways in which its policy shapes peoples’ [sic] lived experiences’ (p. 1330); we could have lessened the impact of the lockdown on the mental health of children by ‘adopting a public health approach that takes account of wider social, economic and cultural factors when developing strategies’ (p. 1416), and so on.

We could in short have magicked away all of lockdown’s ills when it came to children through more data and technical expertise – the implication of course being that we just needed more, and better funded, children’s rights experts and needed to listen to them more.

We could thus have had our cake and eaten it. We could have closed schools and made children stay at home and it would all have been fine if we had just applied ourselves better. This is all, needless to say, a fantasy – based on a fundamental unwillingness to accept that decisions have downsides and that there was no way that school closures would have ever been anything but an unmitigated disaster for many children.

2 – The Listening Fallacy, or, the idea that one could have got to an ideal version of lockdown that would have been fine for children if only children’s own ‘views and experiences’ had been taken into account.

Those who are unfamiliar with the literature on children’s rights are probably only dimly if at all aware that very much of it is based on the idea that we just need to listen to, and empower, children more. (To do otherwise is to engage in ‘adultism.’) This argument is on wide display amongst the contributions in question. The problem is routinely described as being that ‘young people’s views and experiences had not been meaningfully sought in developing emergency measures’ (p. 1322).

Elsewhere, we are told that the problem was the ‘longstanding lack of investment in enabling children’s participation in public decision-making’ (p. 1465), and that ‘listening to the voice of children and young people with lived experience…ha[d] the potential to avoid, or at least mitigate, breaches of children and young people’s rights caused by emergency school closures’ (p. 1453). What we needed was in other words ‘children’s participation in structural decision-making’ (p. 1417). Then we would have had ‘mutual respect’ between adults and children and hence better ‘information-sharing and dialogue’ (p. 1362).

It amazes me that children’s rights advocates, who are supposedly experts, can be so blind to the fact that children very often say things that they have heard adults say, or say things to please adults, and get most of their information from the adults in their lives. And indeed when you actually do listen to children they of course tend to say things like ‘My mum doesn’t really want us to go back [to school] because one, we’re not ready and two, we’re safer here [at home]’ (p. 1348). Or else they come out with things like ‘Get Boris [Johnson] out!’ because they are Scottish and have heard how much their Mums and Dads hate the Tory Party (p. 1350).

What you can actually glean from ‘listening to children’ therefore tends to in practice mean listening to the garbled views of their parents, who are inevitably themselves well-off and posh because those are the types of parents who put their children forward to air their views. How can purportedly intelligent people not recognise this?

But the wider and more important point is the abdication of adult responsibility that really underlies this fallacy. Nobody can deny that children’s interests were sidelined during the lockdown era and that we would have benefited from more sensitivity to the impacts on children. (It is notable that, as is pointed out in one of the pieces I am here citing, only one of the 87 members of SAGE – the government’s advisory panel during the Covid period – had any professional expertise with relation to children.) But the point – and I cannot stress this strongly enough – is that sensible and responsible adults take the interests of the children in their society seriously to begin with.

The problem was not that we didn’t have better participation by children in ‘structural decision-making,’ It was that adults panicked, didn’t properly think through the consequences of their decisions, and children suffered as a result.

We didn’t, in other words, need children to tell us that closing schools was a terrible idea. A society that prioritises its children would have known that anyway. The problem was not, then, that we didn’t take into account the views of children. It was that we didn’t have the backbone to make tough decisions on their behalf.

3 – The Instrumental Fallacy, or, the idea that learning lessons from the pandemic will somehow act as a platform for social improvement.

One was all the time told, during the pandemic, that we would ‘build back better’ and that the lockdowns were an opportunity to reflect, rethink, and re-engage both politically and personally. (How is that working out in practice, three years on?) And so we get the same sort of idea here, in microcosm. Hence, the fact that children’s capacity to play was restricted during the lockdown is said to provide the ‘seeds of opportunity to sustain and strengthen our support for children’s right to play and to work toward restoring the everydayness of play for all children’ (p. 1382).

We are told that the children’s mental health crisis, exacerbated by lockdown, provides us with an opportunity to develop ‘future strategies for children’s mental health’ that ‘optimise…digital technology…to ensure child safety and equity of access for all’ (p. 1417). The widened and intensified levels of domestic abuse suffered by children during the lockdown era is said to give us an opportunity to think of ‘means to make visible the protection, prosecution, provision and participation rights of both child and adult victim-survivors’ (p. 1364). The closure of schools is said to prompt us to ‘reimagine education altogether’ (p. 1390). And so on.

It is perhaps churlish to chide people for wanting to find silver linings in the clouds, but the truth of the matter, for anyone who at the time had eyes to see, was always going to be that lockdown would make many bad things worse. The idea that it was going to be a springboard to a brighter future is like a bizarre perversion of the broken windows fallacy, which posits that we should all break all of our windows since it will provide more work for glaziers.

And sure enough we have been mending broken windows really ever since. Some of the charts that begin this post give a flavour of this, but even the articles I am here citing can’t help giving us a glimpse of just how bad things have become on the bottom rungs of society as a result of lockdown. To quote just one illuminating passage (from p. 1434):

[F]or those children who were already at a disadvantage…the long-term effects of poverty, lack of educational attainment, criminal records, reduced employment opportunities and the lingering effects of anxiety, trauma, bereavement and other mental health issues…are known risk factors for coming into conflict with the law.

The number of children who are absent from school more frequently than they are present has more than doubled in England from 2019-2023 and shows no sign of coming down – indeed, it is increasing (no doubt because school was made to feel optional by adult decision-makers in 2020). That’s, for the avoidance of doubt, a more-than-doubling of the number of children who have essentially no hope of making a positive contribution to society in the long term and are very likely to end up becoming involved in crime, drugs, prostitution, and so on. Never mind ‘building back better;’ we’re having to work very hard to stop the building collapsing altogether, across the piece.

4 – The Ultimate Fallacy, or, the idea that lockdown was the only sensible option to begin with and therefore must not be questioned.

The founding myth of lockdownism was always that lockdown was the perfectly natural and logical thing to do in the circumstances – even though in the grand scheme of things it was of course a huge experiment that had never been tried before. For some reason, the precautionary principle was turned on its head to mean doing anything, no matter how evidently disastrous, in order to prevent a paticular type of harm (i.e. the effect of the spread of the virus on the health service). Part of this picture was the long-term closure of schools, again something that had never before been tried for any length of time, and something whose downsides would have been as clear as day to anybody thinking carefully – and indeed something which was done on the basis merely that it might have an effect on stopping the spread of the virus.

Everywhere one looked, then, it was a case of accepting known or easily foreseeable, and massive, harms in the name of mitigating risk. And we see this written across the entire International Journal of Human Rights issue. Even while cataloguing the litany of harms that were inflicted on children – mental health crisis, lack of socialisation, heightened domestic and sexual abuse, educational disaster, family breakdown, collapsing economic opportunities, exposure to drug-taking, loneliness, lack of play time, and so on and so forth – at bleak and depressing length, the authors return again and again to the same theme: ‘The Covid-19 crisis required the UK and Scottish governments to act fast to safeguard the lives and health of the counry’s population [emphasis added’ (p. 1458). The closure of schools was ‘prompted by the need to protect human rights to life, survival and development’ (p. 1390) and was ‘justified in human rights terms in order to protect the right to life’ (p. 1394). The response to the pandemic, we are told, ‘show[ed] the potential for the impossible to become possible’ (p. 1475), and involved a ‘well-intended prioritisation of health, survival and development’ (p. 1476).

(We also get the familiar nonsense about how ‘the virus’ caused all the bad effects of the lockdown, rather than government policy; my favourite instance of this is the immortal line: ‘COVID-19 has exacerbated [problems], for instance, by introducing new offences which are more likely to criminalise already vulnerable children’ (p. 1436). Creating new criminal offences indeed – that really is some virus!)

This blinkeredness results in evident absurdities and platitudinous thinking. Some authors obviously recognise the wood in amongst the trees. One, for instance, observes sensibly that ‘the available data would not seem to justify the global widespread school closures’ and that ‘the evidence available…begs the question as to why, at least in the second half of 2020, once data emerged that children and young people were not at significant risk of contracting COVID-19, becoming significantly ill or spreading it to adults, was a policy adopted internationally of closing schools?’ (p. 1445).

But she cannot bring herself to come from this to the obvious conclusion, which was that schools should not have been closed at all. She is incapable of challenging the foundational myth, which is that in essence the problem cannot have been lockdownism itself. And so in the end all she can do is conclude, weakly, that the most important lesson to be learned from the period was ‘listening to the voice of children and young people with lived experience and experts and others advocating for children and young people early on and throughout the emergency has the potential to avoid, or at least mitigate, breaches of children and young people’s rights caused by emergency school closures’ (p. 1453).

The spade, then, cannot be called a spade. The fact that schools should never have been closed is the truth that dare not speak its name. And the reason for that is evident: it would mean conceding that possibly, just possibly, the entire edifice of lockdown itself was built on sand and that it was all a terrible, terrible mistake.

5 – The Fairness Fallacy, or, the idea that the only real issue when it came to the implementation of lockdown was that it had unequal outcomes or affected different groups differently.

The final fallacy of course stems from the fourth. To people who are uncomfortable with the consequences of what happened during 2020 but who cannot quite admit it to themselves, the next best thing is to make the one socially acceptable criticism that can be made about lockdowns, which is that they had unequal impact. Thus, we see continual appeals made to the ‘diverse’ effects of the policy.

We are told that one of the core issues was ‘limited information [on] impacts for certain groups – such as Gypsy/Traveller communities, children with disabilities, children from asylum-seeking families, and children from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds’ (p. 1322). We hear time and time again that a central problem was ‘digital exclusion’ (p. 1433). We hear about impacts on children and young people with ‘additional support needs’ and those ‘living in deprivation and poverty’ (pp. 1449-1450). We are enjoined to wring our hands about how responses to the pandemic ‘exacerbated a range of troubling inequalities’ (p. 1475). We hear all about the importance of ‘equity of access’ (p. 1470). We even hear that children from deprived housholds ‘shouldered a disproportionate bereavement burden’ (p. 1432).

During Margaret Thatcher’s last days in office she skewered the Liberal MP Simon Hughes in the House of Commons by observing in him the unstated desire – evident to anybody who undertakes careful study of posh left-wing people – for equality to trump prosperity. As she put it, ‘he would rather have the poor poorer, provided that the rich were less rich.’ There is I think something similar going on with the rhetoric on the ‘unequal’ outcomes of lockdown, as though there would have been nothing wrong with an outcome that was terrible as long as it was terrible for everybody and in exactly the same way. Nobody seems capable of making the logical leap from observing that the lockdown had negative impacts on certain groups to the additional observation that this only means it was less bad – i.e., not good – for everybody else.

Clearly, the lockdown and associated government responses had much worse effects for some people than others – anybody with half a brain can see that. But to conclude from this that the problem could be resolved merely by achieving a level playing field indicates a strange subversion of priorities: as though inequality in itself is the undesirable outcome, rather than the actual undesirable outcomes themselves.

The failure to really think things through, when it comes to the inequality issue, is frustrating, of course, but in this sense it is illustrative of the problem underlying all 11 of the contributions to the issue. It is deeply frustrating that people who were at the ‘front line’, so to speak, in spring of 2020, and who clearly were abreast of all of the miseries that would be inflicted upon so many children as a result of the first, strict lockdown, were so incapable of seeing things clearly. The point is not that we needed a more extensive and carefully calibrated managerial exercise in which rights were more successfully implemented and balanced, in which more data was gathered and more know-how applied, and in which decision-making was better informed by participation.

What we needed were people who were willing to stand up and say that, since children would not be severely affected by the virus and stood the most to lose from lockdown, it was imperative that adult fears should give way and that schools should be permitted to remain open. We just needed courage, in other words; but we didn’t get it.

The first lockdown was a radicalising experience for me, because it revealed to me an unpalatable truth: people like to say that they prioritise children’s needs, but societally we really don’t. A society that prioritised the needs of children would, like Sweden, have kept schools open throughout and allowed children to have opportunities to socialise and play. The contributors to the special issue of The International Human Rights Journal would have us believe that the circle could in some way have been squared and that we could have ‘saved lives’ by closing schools while at the same time making sure children did not suffer. This forces them to make out that the issue is awfully complicated. But I’m afraid to say it really is in the end very simple: children should never have had to go through the experience of lockdown.

Republished from the author’s Substack

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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