Sydney Campbell is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Health Policy, Management & Evaluation at the University of Toronto. She works as a research assistant with the VOICE Childhood Ethics program at McGill University in Montreal. Franco Carnevale, RN, PhD (Psych), PhD (Phil) is a nurse, psychologist and child and youth services ethicist. He leads the VOICE Childhood Ethics program.
With Health Canada recently approving the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for those aged 5 to 11, it is important to pause and draw attention to one undeniable truth in the pandemic: children remain invisible.
It may be true that the impact of COVID-19 on young people has recently been at the centre of the public discourse stage, particularly because getting “back to normal” requires us to consider and protect this significant population. However, most dialogue has focused on COVID-19 vaccine approval processes for children, the opinions and concerns of parents, and plans for vaccine rollout.
Young people themselves remain in the background of this same stage. While researchers continue to engage with various stakeholders to reach and understand children and their families, in many cases young people continue to be overlooked.
Emerging evidence continues to indicate that young people in Canada are really not doing all right during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health concerns are growing. Transmission risks are gaining momentum, along with other physical health concerns. Early education pathways, though slowly returning to normal, have been disrupted in crucial ways. Engaging in community organizations, while vital for support and socialization, has been challenging. Young people also bear those burdens within their families and other social circles.
And unlike the rest of the population, many young people have had to wait a significant period for a vaccine. A decision driven by safety, yes, but one that further amplifies lingering fears and continuing harms.
More than that, young people remain on the periphery of the dominant dialogues related to the pandemic. In many ways, the ones who are best equipped to explain these nuanced experiences are the young people themselves. The lack of engagement with children in media stories, especially those that are thought to be child-focused or related to children, have implicitly positioned children as an afterthought.
When we fail to ask young people what they’re thinking about, feeling, or hoping for, we end up speaking for them. As a result, this has led to misunderstanding the depth of these impacts and the spaces within the child’s life that these harms reach.
However, when given the chance to share in meaningful ways, young people’s voices can fill voids, relieve gaps, and open new outlets for exploration and strategizing. In advances made by childhood ethics and childhood studies scholars, we can begin to challenge the dominant views that treat young people as secondary citizens. We are encouraged to see children as individuals with rights, interests, ideas, capacities and knowledge of what is right/wrong or good/bad. We can see a young person, in the here and now, as important. And we can recognize that children do not care solely about themselves.
In one paper, young people revealed that they wish to be considered as valuable and active contributors in COVID-recovery-plan development for their communities. In our own continuing work at VOICE Childhood Ethics, we have heard young people speak about the unanswered challenges they’re facing and their hopes for reciprocity in pandemic responses, especially since they have given up many of their interests and borne significant harms for the sake of others. Our team has also seen concern for others mentioned repeatedly in our research with and about children. They worry about other people and, in the pandemic particularly, they can make decisions about what to do based on concerns about transmission to their family.
What comes next, then? We must use this pause to reflect on how we view and make assumptions about young people. Media outlets, but also members of society, have a responsibility to challenge and reshape the dominant rhetoric. Young people matter.
We must do what we can to enable children to be heard, in ways they want to be heard. This may involve supporting organizations that are actively bringing young people and decision makers together to encourage participation, or by making more space for children to have their voices heard in a variety of sectors. Ideally this type of engagement would occur before major decisions are made, or immediately following urgent deliberations.
We must treat young people as experts on matters that affect them – because that’s exactly what they are. And we must ensure that children do not become forgotten, trapped behind the closed curtain, but rather that they’re positioned as narrators of their own experiences and aspirations.
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