Dr Noam Peleg
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, it was mainly a threat to adults, especially the elderly. Children were considered as a low-risk population, and the chances that they would get infected, sick or transmit the virus were low.
Children, who are usually seen as vulnerable and in need of protection from adults and by adults and society, began occupying a different role. In 2020, they were a threat to the elderly while being somewhat immune to this deadly disease.
The Delta variant has dramatically changed that. Children, including very young children, are much more prone to get sick, die or to transmit COVID-19 to others. On Tuesday, it was reported that 50 of the 227 active cases in Victoria were of children under the age of 10. In NSW, 3158 COVID cases were people below the age of 19 (1,333 of them were for children aged 0-9), and 40 per cent of Western NSW cases are Aboriginal children. Some 150 childcare centres all over Australia has closed due to Covid threat, and in the United States, children hospitalised with COVID-19 has hit a record number.
The surge of COVID cases in children has happened at a time when vaccination efforts in Australia have ramped up, but vaccinations are not available – anywhere in the world – for children below the age of 12. Afterall, the various types of vaccinations were invented by adults for adults, and children were excluded. By design, children below the age of 12 (which itself is only a recent eligibility age, as the vaccine was considered safe for adults only) are left without no protection. Meanwhile, the eligibility criteria for people under 18 remains strict and supply is short for all ages.
The current guidelines enable only some children aged 12 to 15 years to get vaccinated, and only if they have specified medical conditions, if they leave in a remote community, have certain disabilities or are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. For children aged 16 and above, some may be eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
This leaves children, especially those in younger age brackets, more vulnerable than ever before. In Sydney, they have been locked out of schools for the past eight weeks, with no end in sight. Lockdowns in Melbourne, ACT and some areas of the Northern Territory are in place, too. In Melbourne, bans on outdoor playground activity have been put in place.
Research from previous lockdowns shows that children experience higher levels of mental health issues and increased rates of domestic violence, family separations (estranged parents, other family members), and social isolation. But this time around, their own health, and life, are at greater risk.
The current government messaging is that some restrictions will be eased in October or November when a 70-80% vaccination rate will be achieved. In NSW, a state with a population of 8.2 million people, 1.07 million children are under the age of 9, and 978,000 are aged 10-19. This makes under 19s approximately 24 per cent of the population at a time when the government’s immunisation threshold excludes children. The current trajectory will lead to a situation where the lockdown will be lifted when the majority of adults are vaccinated, leaving the youngest children exposed, and with no opportunity to be protected by vaccination.
There must be a plan to safeguard the life and wellbeing of children, too. Reopening of schools, for example, without taking proper precautions would present a particular risk to children, teachers (and other adults on site), not to mention children’s families. It also means that children with underlying health conditions will be put at even a greater risk when attending school.
One way to mitigate these risks is to make face masks compulsory. Studies have found that with masks, in-school learning is safe and more effective than remote instruction, regardless of community rates of infection. So far, there hasn’t been any suggestion of masks becoming compulsory indoors. A relevant risk issue that has to be mitigated is ventilation and circulation of fresh air.
The ongoing effect of lockdowns on children’s mental health, development, education, social skills and safety is significant, but government roadmaps continue to focus only on mass vaccination that excludes children as a route out, meaning the unique vulnerability of children to the Delta Variant will remain.
Dr Noam Peleg is a Senior Lecturer at UNSW’s Faculty of Law and Justice, and an Associate at the Australian Human Rights Institute. His work focuses on international children’s rights law and its intersection with human rights law, childhood studies, and child development.