Every decision that our politicians take in the fight against COVID-19 has consequences – some more than others.
For B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, one of the toughest choices he had to make was closing the province’s schools.
“There are kids who literally beg for Monday morning to come along because it’s so hard in their homes,” the Minister told me in a recent interview. “There are various kinds of abuse that can happen in a home and, if you’re a kid at the receiving end of it, well, it’s awful. It’s absolutely brutal.”
Much of the focus during the pandemic has been on the global number of cases and subsequent deaths; people around the world have also worked hard to tackle job losses, business closings and a plunging stock market. But there are tens of thousands of other victims here – ones who may never get sick from the virus, but may take a lifetime to recover from its fallout.
Home is where we’re supposed to be safe these days. But for many children, it’s the last place they want to be. Studies have shown a direct correlation between economic instability and reported instances of violence in the home, and right now there is massive upheaval in the job market.
China saw a three-fold increase in domestic abuse in February – while the country was in the midst of its fight against the coronavirus – over the previous year, according to Wan Fei, the founder of an anti-abuse non-profit in the country. He estimated that 90 per cent of the cause of the violence was related to COVID-19. Countries around the world are now on high alert for the same phenomenon playing out in their jurisdictions.
Women suffer the violence, disproportionately. And kids will witness much of this abuse, if not experience it themselves.
There are other elements of this pandemic most of us would never think of. For instance, many parents, especially those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, look to schools to provide food for their children. They also expect schools to look after their children while they are off working at low-paying jobs.
Authorities in the United States and elsewhere are now worried that many parents, left with little choice, will simply leave their children at home to fend for themselves, while schools around the world remain closed amid the pandemic.
Or, perhaps worse, kids will be left in the company of unsafe adults.
The closing of schools is significant for another reason: It’s often teachers who detect (and report) children they suspect are suffering physical or sexual abuse at home. Without those guardians around, kids are likely to suffer in silence much longer now.
To make matters worse, many of the agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere that investigate complaints of child abuse and keep children safe have scaled back their services to slow the spread of the virus. This comes at the same time that calls to domestic abuse hotlines are spiking.
We like to think of children as resilient, as being able to handle anything thrown at them. But they are affected by traumatic events as much as the rest of us; even more so in some cases. Studies done on the effect Hurricane Katrina had on children in Louisiana, for instance, found that they suffered severe emotional trauma for years afterward. In fact, the reports suggested that Katrina left rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in children similar to those of veterans returning from war.
A 2017 study by Alice Fothergill of the University of Vermont found that kids experience anxiety and panic as intensely as adults do. They are often just better at hiding it.
Most schools in Canada are now closed until further notice. However, the B.C. government announced this week that some may open to a limited number of children. This, I’m certain, is aimed at helping out the most vulnerable children in the province, the ones who looked forward to those Mondays when they were able to escape the tyranny of an abusive home life – the ones for whom Mr. Dix was most worried.
None of us, of course, knows how long we will be forced to endure the restrictions placed upon us by this pandemic. It could be months longer. It very likely will be.
But as we focus on helping as many people as possible avoid contracting this dreadful virus, let us not forget those whose voices are not strong enough to be heard. While the evidence shows that children run less risk of contracting the disease, they will still deal with enormous pain from it.
We must not allow a public health pandemic to become an abuse pandemic.
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