In an open letter to Daniel Andrews last Tuesday, twelve senior Melbourne doctors broke their silence, revealing deep concern about the government’s management of the Covid-19 viral pandemic as a public health issue. Since then, over 600 more Victorian medical practitioners have signed on.
Until now, most thoughtful dissent has only been whispered in private and it’s not hard to see why. Dazzled by our premier’s self-erected halo, the largely fawning media has unquestioningly amplified his every talking point and successfully narrowed the Overton window of acceptable discourse to the point where anyone who dares challenge the prescribed narrative is branded a denier, a conspiracy theorist, a covidiot, or perhaps worst of all, a Karen.
Not only has truth-seeking been verboten, but the overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens of Victoria have willingly hung their heads and borne repeated chastisement by a breathtakingly arrogant man who simultaneously denies his own failures: not just in the high-profile quarantine debacle, but also the appalling inadequacies of the DHHS testing, notification and contact-tracing systems.
The government’s approach to the pandemic has been ad hoc at best, and contradictory, hypocritical and irresponsible at worst. It has abrogated its responsibility to balance competing risks and benefits in creating public policy and instead, in a complete rejection of enlightenment thinking, hidden behind experts and bureaucrats who have employed single factor analysis to spread fear, crush basic human freedoms and ignore the increasing evidence of the damage it is inflicting.
Our premier’s insistence that the virus doesn’t discriminate is not true. Covid-19 is predominantly dangerous for those who fall into high risk groups: the elderly and those with co-morbidities. But putting aside the negligence of our leaders in failing to adequately protect those vulnerable people, it is clear that the kind of indiscriminate, heavy-handed responses they have favoured actually cause disproportionate harm to those least at risk from the virus itself: our youngest Victorians. The twelve brave medicos made a coherent case for ending lockdowns, but did not address one urgent issue: more than any other demographic, in the midst of this undemocratic mess, our state is harming its children.
Evidence to date has consistently found that the virus poses a negligible risk to children, but every Victorian child has felt the awful impact of lockdown. Over these past six months, children have lost almost everything dear to them, from hugs with grandparents to normal social interaction with friends to parties and playgrounds and sports. And of course, there has been no school.
Given the strong and well-documented connection between education, income and life expectancy, evidence suggests that school closures could have long-term deleterious consequences for child health, likely reaching into adulthood. Adding to the massive educational and economic implications of school closures, the immediate effects on student health and well-being are significant. Schools facilitate behavioural health, physical activity and social development. And despite the truly heroic efforts of so many Victorian teachers and educators, remote learning remains a very poor substitute.
This is particularly true for primary school-aged children. These young children are just beginning their education, with steep learning curves the norm even under ordinary circumstances. Their teachers, peers and classrooms cannot viably be replaced with seven hours a day alone at a screen. Experienced school principals are already predicting that many Victorian prep students will simply lack the basic foundations to continue on to Grade 1 next year.
But our youngest and least independent learners were completely ignored when the government allowed only VCE students to return to school at the start of Term 3. This in stark contrast with Denmark, France and Germany, where advice from medical and educational experts led those countries to prioritise opening primary schools before secondary schools, citing both the lower learning autonomy of young children and the lower risk of spread of infection in that age group.
We know that there has already been a 33 per cent rise in children presenting to hospital with self-harm injuries. Calls to Lifeline have also increased by 25 per cent. And this data is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, with no way of properly recording the number of children experiencing less catastrophic but no less devastating levels of anxiety, insomnia and sadness. Furthermore, Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital has determined that a third of children injured or unwell during this period have had their health care delayed by panicked parents and one in five has had routine immunisations delayed, generating fears that herd immunity to diseases that are actually dangerous for children may decline, opening the door to potentially deadly outbreaks.
Education Minister James Merlino has freely admitted that the rationale behind school closures has nothing to do with the safety of children and is purely based on a desire to restrict the movement of their parents. Sacrificing children for a perceived ‘greater good’ that has yet to be justified with any kind of evidence is about as unethical as it gets.
Our leaders continue to cherry-pick only the medical opinions that suit their narrative. Although formal medical associations here in Australia have so far remained shamefully silent on this issue, there are plenty of distinguished medical bodies recommending that schools should remain open. These include the American Academy of Pediatrics and the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. In Sweden, where schools were never closed even at peak case numbers, not a single child died from the virus, and a report by UNICEF showed Swedish children have fared better than kids in other countries during the pandemic, both in terms of education and mental health.
Schools are not only safe, but essential for children’s well-being. And with a little bit of creativity, we could address teachers’ potential concerns by implementing protective measures such as Perspex screens, just as banks and other businesses have done.
Notwithstanding the inevitability of temporary campus closures based on individual cases or clusters of Covid-19, reopening schools should be an immediate priority. Children cannot continue to be collateral damage in a political experiment while we wait for a vaccine that may never come.
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