Jen Hogan: We used to protect children. Now we’re expecting them to defend us against Covid

The task of turning the coronavirus tide should rest with the adults who can still go for pints

The tree has been up since mid-November. The Christmas songs are on loop and the curly-haired dude has been spreading festive cheer, counting down the days and sporting his Santa hat to school since November 1st, as we’ve tried to drown out the pandemic noise that roars louder all the while.

But it’s getting harder by the day. New variants, new restrictions and the winter we had to er, well, winter-out last year, in the hope of summering anywhere, looks remarkably like this year’s winter.

But it’s not, they tell us. Now that we’ve vaccines all is different, unless of course you’re a child under 12. If you’re a child under 12 your activities, playdates, Christmas shows, birthday parties, sleepovers, pantomimes, Communions and any other indoor activities that might bring you joy are up for negotiation again – because turning the Covid tide rests on your shoulders.

Not with the Government, or with the adults who can fill the Aviva, go for pints, or even clubbing – the recommended number of times, of course – but squarely on the shoulders of our youngest members of society, and on Irish mammies.


Children stepped up to the plate, doing all that was asked of them in spite of their tender years

And if you’re nine you should now wear a mask, as that is the mitigation measure chosen rather than improved ventilation or a return to full contact tracing – in your freezing classroom. At least I’m told by teachers that they’re freezing. Freezing because windows must be kept open in the absence of other ventilation options, making for a totally unsuitable environment for teachers to teach and children to learn.

Of course, I wouldn’t know from personal experience, as I haven’t stepped inside my children’s school in 21 months, not even on my youngest child’s first day last year. He wandered into big school wide-eyed and curious about what awaited, but at least not crying or distressed. When some of his little friends cried, their parents looked on helplessly, unable to accompany their children into class, because our little dudes had to walk that journey alone, thanks to the pandemic and school efforts to keep things safe.

I remember the days when adults protected children, and looked out for their best interests. When children’s needs and wellbeing were touted as a priority, even if they weren’t always treated as such. It seems we’re past the point of even pretending that now. And then a pandemic came along and everyone had to play their part, to protect ourselves but also to protect our vulnerable. And the nation’s wonderful children stepped up to the plate, doing all that was asked of them in spite of their tender years, because that’s what being in it together means.

And they paid a heavy price as schools closed for far longer than we could have imagined, and their essential supports, activities, social outlets and tribe were taken away from them. Milestone occasions and celebrations were cancelled altogether or postponed repeatedly. And the “in it together” message was somewhat lost as we appeared to forget that all children were not equal in the challenges they faced.

Not every child had parents who could support them, an appropriate learning environment, access to suitable devices or the ability to learn and engage remotely. Not every child returned to the education system when schools reopened. And not every child had a safe home when their school and outlets were closed to them.

Fun, play, social interaction and emotional development all matter

But on we go, and the narrative seems a little too familiar and uncomfortable again. The onus is on children and parents to sort the situation. Echoes of the “children are vectors” era hang in the air, when banning children from shops was deemed an acceptable behaviour, and when this mother experienced having a grown man shout abuse at her in the street for going out for a walk with all of her children together. Because children shouldn’t have been seen, and certainly weren’t heard.

Still, Ireland’s wonderful children will no doubt step up to the plate again, even if the ask seems terribly unfair. Two weeks they tell us, and February for a mask review. Some children will find this much harder than others. Only it’s not just two weeks, or two months. It’s two weeks and two months on top of all the rest. And we need to remember that and ensure these restrictions are reviewed soon and in place no longer than necessary.

Because children matter. Fun, play, social interaction and emotional development all matter. The “children are resilient” line, too often used as a convenient platitude, dismisses how different their world is and how disproportionately they’ve been affected by the pandemic.

The Christmas songs play more frequently now as the big day draws nearer. A welcome distraction perhaps, but not one hopefully, that will distract us from the task in hand – making sure our voiceless children’s needs and wellbeing are prioritised.