A Children’s Pandemic

A month of Pandemic measures and I already wince at a handshake or touched face on Netflix. Just yesterday, New York was bustling, packed and confident. Now it is cautious, dispersed and masked. If our relationship with the world around us has been instantly transformed, what about the impact upon children in their formative years?

It may be the single blessing of this ruthless pandemic that children are least vulnerable to the virus. But sadly not the potentially deadly ricochets and aftershocks it leaves in its wake. This week the UN Secretary General reported that health and food system impacts will increase other childhood diseases and malnutrition. The number of children living in extreme poverty is projected to increase from 386 to as much as 450 million as a direct result of a new Covid19-induced economic crisis. Extreme poverty is always a killer and likely to take more children than the virus itself. Perhaps reversing 2-3 years of global progress on preventable childhood deaths.

There is barely a child on the planet whose life has not been affected by the Pandemic in some way. 1.5 billion are at home and not school. At least tens of millions of children will be born into this crisis, mostly in conditions that would have been different if it weren’t for the pandemic. Children cannot see their friends and suffer major disruptions to learning, life and play. Sports tournaments, excursions and hackathons all shelved, teenage romance on hold. A recent study suggested that prolonged quarantine in general can make a person 4 times more likely to have poor mental health. The pandemic shocks touch all children .

Fortunately many children have the shock absorbers of a safe home, loving family and freedom from poverty, social exclusion or war. If just one from the set is missing, the impact of the pandemic is likely to be deeper and life-changing. There is now a new single thread of additional vulnerability tying together children in tightly packed slums in African cities with those in camps in Syria and Yemen. It extends to the low income children in rich countries like the UK and US and those at risk of severe acute malnutrition in the poorest countries. It also hits the approximately 5% of the world’s children with disability and the 15-20% in seriously dysfunctional, neglectful and violent homes. This pandemic has been merciless in piling more pressure on to those least able to absorb it.

The bottom billion have no means for social distancing or hand washing. Their health systems often have just a few ventilators and Intensive care beds. They are not thinking of flattening the curve, but rather a couple of dozen cases flattening their entire health system. Prevention of other childhood diseases is already disrupted, including vaccination programmes on hold in 23 countries. 30 million conflict affected children are dependent on humanitarian assistance which is likely to be battered as supply chains buckle and aid financing and fiscal space contract. 40% of the world’s children don’t even have hand washing facilities.

Remote learning is a great solution for most children, but even here in New York city it is estimated that 300,000 low income children don’t have the digital means to participate. School closures will widen the two main learning gaps. The first between countries with high performing education systems who have the agility and means to switch and those countries which cannot run their education system effectively at the best of times. The second gap is between the learning outcomes of wealthy and poor children within countries. 368.5 million of those poor children have also been cut off from essential school feeding programmes which are often the only source of nutrition. Children in need of special learning support at school or dependent on relationships with teachers and friends to mitigate the pain of violent and neglectful homes are suddenly adrift. All against a rising backdrop of increased reporting of intimate partner violence and child abuse from India to Greenland to Australia and all points in between.

If the Coronavirus was a pantomime villain waiting behind a curtain for an opportune moment to pounce, it did so with precision. Thus far, dwindling internationalism has made us too weak to address the Pandemic in the whole. But you cannot partially address a pandemic. Even during the Cold War, the USSR and the West realized this and joined forces to end smallpox. And thats what our polarised world needs to do now. If everyone is not safe, no-one is safe. The virus shows our interdependence and in the end, maybe thats its virtue.

This is not insurmountable. WHO, UNICEF, the Red Cross, scientists and artists have joined forces in the Solidarity Fund to mobilise resources for a vaccine and for prevention and response work in low and middle income countries. Scientists shared the genetic sequencing on the virus very early on and are collaborating across borders despite nationally-minded governments. There is also a global initiative to galvanise leaders into more collaborative and internationally-minded policy-making in response to the pandemic.

We have also seen national governments and societies prioritise children. 83 countries have adapted their social protection systems to help shield poor families and children from the crisis. Health, education and social work systems have often adapted to maintain basic services. Armies of school and health volunteers are helping minimise the impact of the pandemic upon children.

We should now see maintaining supply chains, aid flows and health systems in poor and humanitarian contexts as a first line response for us all, even though it seems far away. Look how far the virus has already travelled. We may also need to invest in social protection to help the bottom billion socially distance, particularly those in densely packed and poorly resourced urban slum and refugee/migrant camps.

In wealthy and poorer countries alike we should support adaptions for teachers and social workers to have exactly the same amount of contact with children as they had before the crisis and for school feeding programmes to be delivered to homes. When adapting education we need to prevent remote learning widening the gap between wealthy and poor.

Albert Camus may have appreciated the importance of teacher contact and continued learning. In 1957 he dedicated his Nobel Prize for literature to the teacher who was there for him in the midst of poverty and adversity. His masterpiece The Plague is once again a bestseller and remains a testimony to our interdependence and collective strength in the face of this crisis. In it, he wrote: “No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny, made of the disease and emotions shared by all.” .

“What You Have Been and Still are for Me”

The Power of Teaching

I have a favourite teacher story and it goes like this. As a child, Albert Camus was asked by his impoverished single mother to quit school and start work. Camus’s teacher visited the family home and convinced her to let young Albert continue his education. The teacher’s name name was Louis Germain.

Decades later when he got the Nobel Prize for Literature, Albert Camus wrote to Mr Germain to say thank you in a letter entitled “What You Have Been and Still are for Me”.
He continued “Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.”

In different ways, how many of us have been touched by a teacher who made us feel like we matter? Sometimes as children we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders through poverty, trauma or conflict. In those contexts, the narrow opportunities for a child to exercise curiosity, collaboration and cultivate character can only be seized with the help of incredible teacher.

Two thirds of us have had teachers who made a difference in our lives, according to research from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Yet the research also shows that these teachers are outliers in their own school settings. Even the university professors who produce the most impactful teachers are outliers in their faculties. We do not incentivise modern day Mr Germains at all

We have recently come to understand that children learn from teachers they love. We used to see reasoning as being the opposite to emotion, but neuroscience tells us something different. It is only through a deep network of relationships, belonging and collaboration in school and life that we can have an ecosystem for learning. To motivate and organise ourselves for learning, we have to engage the emotions. Emotions are not compartmentalised in a different part of our brain while we deploy rationality and reason to absorb facts.

In any given classroom of 25 children, at least 4 or 5 may experience multiple forms of trauma at home. Such trauma chronically activates their stress response system. This doesn’t switch off when they enter the classroom.   An attuned teacher in a trauma-informed classroom can soothe the stress response system. They can help the child to learn, trust, connect and build resilience and attachment. And here is where the healing, and therefore the ability to learn, begins. Trauma-informed schooling is potentially one of the most impactful strategies for reducing child trauma in general. 

A few years ago I listened to Dr Tony Wagner an education Professor at Harvard explaining the research on the outlier teachers who help kids recover from a broken start . It inspired me to track down a teacher who had transformed my life. At 15 I lived in state care in an inner-city area blighted by drugs and crime. I had been kicked out of three schools and had wound up in an education centre for those at the very end of the line. In every sense, my life prospects were incredibly bleak.

Jan Rapport was an idealistic teacher working in the most difficult of education settings. She gave me a chance. She became the only adult I could remember who I had a real conversation with during my entire childhood. She instilled in me a lifelong passion for learning and particularly for literature. My imagination soared and I began to see a different path forward. I now know, it was probably the calming attachment and connection, the relationship itself that made the most difference.

When I the school at 16, I lost contact with her. When I finally found Ms Rapport over 25 years later there was so much to talk about that we didn’t really know where to begin. She was now a pensioner and I was well….er…middle aged. We caught up on what we had done with our lives. Nobody expects someone from my background to have a job in the UN, though somehow she thought I would turn out okay. I needed to tell her that she saved me-that I would not be here and I wouldn’t have done all of this without her. I didn’t have any words in my vocabulary that could adequately convey how grateful I am. I was in awe to look into the eyes of this person who saw things in me that I did not see in myself and helped me beat a pathway to places I could have never imagined. A teacher. The power of a teacher.

It is often said that when you are teacher you don’t know where you legacy will end. Louis German commitment stayed with Albert Camus through his life. A part of it passed onto to others through his work, friendships and family. Imagine if we could deliver a global legacy on teaching. If we could take what inspirational, life-changing teachers have and dispense it through entire teaching workforces. Every teacher emotionally present for children. Every child made to feel like they belong and matter as an individual. Every school dedicated to learning, curiosity and trauma-informed healing. We could and we should celebrate the power of teaching and harness it to touch the lives of every child.