Will I stay the same age since I didn’t have a birthday party?” It’s hard to answer JD’s question. The class II student from Gurugram, Haryana, who turned seven in September, during the covid-19 pandemic, is staring at the possibility of another birthday without friends. “This year shouldn’t count,” he says.
Over the past year, JD has been kept indoors by the pandemic. He spends his days playing Lego, attending virtual classes and doing FaceTime sessions with friends. His father, a senior executive with a food and beverage company, had to take a pay cut and his discussions with JD’s homemaker mother are often about curtailing daily costs. Though his parents have never discussed the financial situation with him or cut back on his needs in any way, JD seems to have picked up on the conversations. He doesn’t want gifts for his next birthday. “Paisa khatam ho jayega, na (the money will finish, no?),” he says. When I ask him what he wishes for, pat comes the reply: “I never want to hear the word covid. And I want to go back to school. I am tired of hearing ‘Mute yourself’ in online sessions.”
It’s obvious that the pandemic has deeply affected diverse populations across the world—but it has had an impact like no other on children of all ages, from newborns to adolescents. Each age group has had to face new challenges: be it their family’s economic situation, their inability to meet friends or forge bonds, play or socialise outdoors, the compulsion to adapt to online learning, or fear of the disease itself. Some have internalised the strain their parents are going through, others have got a chance to bond with grandparents and live out memories of an earlier, simpler life. The pandemic has affected each child differently, emotionally and physically—and the impact may take years to understand and deal with.
“Covid-19 not only suspended normal childhood activities such as attending school, interacting with extended family and friends, playing outdoors, and exploring nature but also disrupted the consequent socio-emotional benefits that accrue from children’s engagement in these experiences,” observes Impact Of The Covid-19 Pandemic On Early Childhood Care And Education, an article published in the Early Childhood Education Journal (September 2020). It notes that medical research suggests covid-19 is not, strictly speaking, a “children’s disease” since there are very few confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the young. “Yet when we consider all aspects of young children’s development, the profound implications of this global pandemic are evident.”
Radhika Nair, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist, says the effect of a year without school, interaction with friends or play dates, is beginning to show. The burden has fallen on parents and siblings to fill the gap of peers. “In very young kids—toddlers or those starting playschool—social skills have taken a hit. Parents find that loud sounds startle the children, crowds frighten them. A lot of effort will have to be made to accustom them to these surroundings,” says Nair.
The restrictions and shutdowns, mandated to curtail the spread of the virus, have had an adverse effect on the emotional and physical development of children. It can be seen in subtle changes, such as difficulty in sleeping, excessive screen use, wariness of the outdoors, falling grades and rising aggression.
In vulnerable communities, school closures and a surge in poverty are resulting in forced marriages, neglect, abuse and depression. In the absence of access to digital devices, a lot of children are dropping out of school. As many as 2.2 billion—or two-thirds of children and young people aged 25 or less—do not have internet access at home, according to the How Many Children And Youth Have Internet Access At Home report, a joint effort by Unicef and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). It further states that at the height of nationwide lockdowns, up to 1.6 billion children were affected by school closures, causing the largest mass disruption of education in modern history.
Another Unicef survey found that indicators measuring child and adolescent development have regressed, a setback that heralds lasting stigma for an entire generation. In fact, due to covid-19 measures, approximately 80 million children under the age of one in at least 68 countries may miss out on receiving life-saving vaccines (World Health Organization, Unicef, Gavi, and the Sabin Vaccine Institute, 2020).
The pandemic and pre-schoolers
How does one even begin to gauge the effects of the pandemic on two- to four-year-olds who have not yet started articulating their feelings? Some were to start playschool between 2020 and 2021, while others were to move to primary school. They have not yet gotten used to this virtual way of learning.
Yamini Chhajlany, a business school professor in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, has two sons, aged eight and four. The latter was in playschool in 2020 and has just joined pre-kindergarten (KG). While her husband has flexible working hours, Chhajlany often has to step out for a full day of work. “There is a certain amount of fear. When I am back, I tell the younger one not to touch me till I take a shower,” she says. A complete halt to events such as birthday parties has taken a toll on the way the little one negotiates social groups or interacts with people. “Three families (all related), including ours, share a compound. Last year, one of the families got infected. My younger son saw one of the members a month later, after they had recovered, while riding a bike in the compound. He just left his bicycle and ran away,” recalls Chhajlany. “He couldn’t understand that his uncle was not infected any more. That really shook me up. What has this pandemic done to our kids!”
Some preschoolers,who have started their school years online don’t even understand the concept of a teacher, or what waiting for your turn means. It is a novel experience to make friends virtually. “This is true of newcomers to a class in any age group. My daughter is eight, and two new girls joined her class in March this year. They know absolutely no one. At least when my daughter smiles at a friend, there is acknowledgment as they have been together for a long time,” says Khushnaaz Noras, a Mumbai-based consulting psychologist.
Finding a new direction
It’s not all bleak news though. There are small ways in which children are taking control of their lives. Nair mentions a recent study which found that for children aged four-seven, wearing a mask signifies a sense of control. “I was really surprised to read that. Here we thought, poor things, it must be so suffocating to wear masks all day. But children are hearing things about covid-19 all day from their parents, or from the news. When they wear masks, they feel in charge of their bodies and the environment,” she says.
Pre-teens, those between ages eight and 12, have their own share of coping to do. Chhajlany can now sense in her elder son a growing frustration at being cooped up. With cases rising, and news of some children getting infected, there is no other choice. He wonders when the children’s vaccine will be out so that his life can return to some semblance of normalcy. “It is so ironic that children, who are otherwise scared of vaccination, are now waiting for it,” she says.
I asked the parent of a 10-year-old girl about her memories from when she was the same age. Arti Goel, a resident of Mansarover Garden, Delhi, recalls it as a time without gadgets, internet or smartphones. That was when memories were recorded in one’s subconscious and not on the phone every single minute. “Perhaps that is what made childhood back then so precious,” she says. “I remember climbing trees, wearing gumboots and splashing in puddles during the rains in Bareilly.” But if a similar pandemic had struck, her education would have come to a complete halt. Virtual learning was unimaginable back then. Her daughter Khushi has adapted well to online learning after an initial struggle. Today, she doesn’t just study well, she also writes a blog. The young student has just published her first fantasy book, The Bunny Who Cooked Macaroni.
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The pandemic allowed Khushi the time to recognise her passion. Today, she spends an hour daily writing stories, and has etched out storylines for two-three new books of fiction. She also got to spend a lot of time with her grandparents, who stay with them, something her earlier schedule, jam-packed with school and extracurricular activities, didn’t permit. “2020 was a landmark year for me in more ways than one. I got to know so many stories from my grandparents’ childhood spent in Punjab. I have written all of them down. They told me how the family would sometimes sleep under the stars during hot summer months. For us, who sleep under a cement roof, this seems like a magical time—minus the bugs, of course,” she says.
It was a similar story for nine-year-old Anugya Jha, based in Gurugram. The first three-four months of the pandemic went by happily with his paternal grandparents, who had travelled from Patna in February 2020 for his birthday. “It was truly party time, playing Ludo from morning till evening. But after they left, he didn’t go down to play till September-October as the caseload was very high. That’s when we noticed some behavioural changes in him. He would get upset and irritated quickly. We realised it was because he was cooped up in the house, either doing homework, reading or watching television. But slowly, he realised it was for his own good,” says his mother, Sharmishtha.
For Anugya, small things—such as his grandparents’ flights being cancelled thrice—were novel events. These incidents were signifiers of the impact the pandemic had on his routine. “During the first phase of online classes, I was grumpy, but then I got used to it. I started reading a lot of books, especially the Harry Potter series. I am on the sixth book now,” he says proudly. While he is slowly coming to terms with the constant presence of the virus, he is a curious child and wants to get to the root of why and where it came from. “It has been on my mind. Something inside me keeps asking, where did this come from? Only then will we understand it and ensure it doesn’t happen again,” he says.
Like Anugya, many other children have a lot of questions. Different “what-if” scenarios play out in their heads. When Aneira Gupta, 11, travelled for the first time during the pandemic last month, she kept imagining all that could happen from the time she took the flight to the time she returned. “I realised this was going on in her mind only when we returned and had a conversation about her experience,” says her mother, Sonali Gupta, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist and a Lounge columnist.
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Initially, when the lockdown was announced, Aneira felt the pandemic might run its course in three-six months and life would then go back to normal. 2020 was to be a momentous year for her—one she had been waiting for. Moving up to class VI meant shifting to a new school building and exploring the library and new spaces with her friends. But two-three days into the new academic year, the city was locked down. Though disappointed, she took to baking and cooking with new-found zeal. “While Aneira used to enjoy it earlier, she might not have taken to cooking so well if not for the pandemic,” says Gupta.
Aneira, who wants to be a chef, has been speaking to her parents about what the future will hold—will pop-ups still exist and what shape will restaurants take? “She needs to focus on acquiring skills and be open to the changes that the future brings,” says Gupta.
Aneira started doing FaceTime sessions with a cousin based overseas about the books they were reading and the authors they loved. These virtual connections were important as there was no one of her age in the apartment complex to speak to. “We met a friend of mine and her daughter in February. And Aneira kept saying, ‘I am meeting a human child face to face for the first time in 11 months.’ Kids her age have been dealing with the situation with a lot of humour,” says Gupta.
Like children aged two-four, for this age group too the biggest grouse has been missing out on birthday parties. Not so, though, for parents, who are quite relieved about this aspect. They no longer have to organise gifts, games and the ubiquitous magic shows. Jasvinder Kaur, a doctor based in Hubballi, Karnataka, and mother to a six-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl, says: “My daughter’s birthday falls on 26 March. Last year, the lockdown was announced barely a few days prior to that, and she couldn’t have a party. She was severely disappointed. As a parent, I have to say, I was a bit relieved to be exempted from all the planning.” But it took a while to explain to her, as children in her group were still having parties at the time, with the caseload being lower in Hubballi than elsewhere in the country. “But both of us, being anaesthetists, and part of a tertiary care centre, knew just how critical the situation was.”
The couple contemplated sending the children and their grandparents to their native place for the duration of the pandemic but then decided against it, given the negative impact that being away from parents would have on the children’s psyche, even if their physical health was assured. The family decided to face the pandemic as a unit. The children, sensitive to the situation, followed the regulations of wearing masks. Both the children spent 2020 in creative pursuits, sculpting or painting. And for her birthday this March, Dr Kaur’s daughter herself said she wanted a low-key celebration.
A test of resilience
Open communication and regular conversations are the need of the hour, say experts. Every effort needs to be made to orient and reorient children to the ever-changing situation. This is especially important for children who are introverts, or those who get singled out in class, whatever the reason. “They are struggling. They don’t have a social network to speak of,” says Nair. Some other children in the class might be tech-savvy and have a wide group of friends to call. But some children get isolated, especially those with special needs, and those on the autistic spectrum. “For them, social skills are tough anyway,” says Nair, who counsels three children on the neurodivergent spectrum. Two of the three have started hitting parents or hurting themselves. “They don’t know how to deal with the isolation. The online medium doesn’t work for them. They need to see physical cues to react and converse,” she adds.
Experts foresee an impact on the academic learning curve, especially of children in classes V and VI, who are introduced to new concepts of geometry, algebra and chemistry.
The pandemic is impacting physical development too. In some cases, parents are putting off routine checkups to avoid going to hospitals. “Children of all age groups are neither getting enough sunlight nor sufficient exercise. Some kids are having obesity issues while others are having problems with the bowel function and are suffering from constipation due to lack of physical activity,” says Noras. The increase in device time is leading to the early use of prescription spectacles.
Sleep routines have become erratic. Earlier, most children would be in bed by 9pm but many are now awake till 11pm or later. PC, a Bengaluru-based corporate communications professional and mother to a 17-year-old, says children have turned into nightbirds. “They stay up till 2.30am, and it is very rarely to study. They chat, play games and then sleep the whole morning. Often, they switch on the virtual class and get back under the quilt. It is not at all healthy.”
In families that experienced job losses, children are plagued with an additional anxiety—that of the stability of the living situation. Noras, who does pro bono work as well, has seen children from a lower middle-class demographic worrying about whether the landlord will evict the family or if there will be food on the table. “It’s not like there isn’t food in the house, but the child has heard parents discuss the situation and has internalised the worry. This is even true of families that had to shut small businesses.”
In more affluent families, children are fighting loneliness. They are also witnessing a lot of bickering between parents. “Believe me, couple counselling is now 50% of my work, as compared to 20% earlier. Parents are exhausted from juggling work and home, and children are unable to understand why everyone around them is so irritable, frustrated or aggressive,” Noras says.
Coming of age online
For many teens, 2020 was to be a landmark year— school, farewells, unchaperoned trips with friends, first dates, high school dances, and more. Fifteen-year-old Zoya Sethi had been planning to go out with friends to mark the start of class IX. “The lockdown started just a day before we were to go out. Initially, we did a lot of online calls and played Ludo,” says the Gurugram-based student. “It was an important year for us before starting grade 10 and sitting for boards.”
PC’s daughter started class XII in a new school last year—and has barely had an opportunity to get to know her teachers and classmates. “When I was her age, I had an active social life. There were dates to look forward to, gossip about who was going to ask whom out, hanging out with friends. That has been deleted from their schedule,” says PC. She has noticed that her daughter, an introvert by nature, has become even more “unsocial”.
“If someone texts her from the family or our social group, she runs to me and asks how she is supposed to respond,” she says. “That has really thrown me off gear. For people like my daughter, who are not that social, a new school and peer group would have made a huge difference to the way they interact. At this stage, when they will be applying to colleges and need to enter into group discussions, these interpersonal skills are important.”
Given that most of their plans for the immediate future have fallen through, the uncertainty is now beginning to impact their day-to-day decisions. Simple things like not being able to take the local train or an Uber in cities like Mumbai, where the pandemic wave has been like a roller-coaster, has robbed them of their independence. “Covid-19 has now become teatime talk at home. I have teenagers asking me to tell their parents to back off and stop talking about covid all the time,” says Noras.
Like everything else though, the pandemic comes with a silver lining. According to a Mumbai-based counsellor who works with children from classes VII-XII, they have been surprisingly resilient. They recognise that this is something to be taken seriously as their grandparents and older family members are at risk. “One is seeing a trend of delayed gratification, which was earlier not the case. This generation used to be all about instant gratification and was impulse driven. They are now finding a balance between tech for the purpose of information and education, and not just for entertainment. That transition has been made,” she says.
A lot of the children recognise their privilege and have been deeply impacted by the plight of migrant workers, or those without access to medical aid. As a result, many like Sethi have spent the last year organising campaigns on menstrual hygiene and getting sanitary napkins across to women migrant labourers. “I also took up online courses in design. There was no point sitting and moping, so I decided to learn new things and think on my toes,” says Sethi, who is now in class X. “The pandemic has changed the way I think about the future. Most importantly, I have learnt to cope and adapt. It has changed me as a person.”