As several parts of India reimpose lockdowns and restrictions on movement to brave the second wave of Covid-19, the country’s younger population is struggling to keep up. Preteens, kids, and their parents are demanding Covid-19 vaccination for children below the age of 18. Paediatricians say they have seen a rise in cases of anxiety and screen addiction among children as they continue to be confined to their homes for over a year now. Many maintain that students need to be vaccinated not only to be saved from the pandemic but also to allow them to visit schools and play outdoors.
While countries like the United States, Canada, and now Singapore have approved vaccinations for children, India is yet to roll out such a policy for its population below 18. The fear among parents has worsened as several reports suggest that children might be hit harder in the third wave of the pandemic. Earlier this week, thousands of young Indians joined a Tweetathon demanding vaccination. #SaveKidsFrom3rdWave and #VaccinateIndianKids trended on the microblogging site. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has also asked for vaccination for kids. “In the time to come, children will need protection from Corona. Pediatric services and vaccine-treatment protocol should already be in place. India’s future needs for the present Modi ‘system’ to be shaken out of sleep," he tweeted.
Even though kids have braved Covid-19 better than adults with hardly any severe cases of coronavirus among children being reported, it is their mental health that has taken a bigger hit during the lockdown. Dr Ashutosh Sinha, additional director of paediatrics at Fortis Hospital in Noida, told News18.com, “We have seen increased cases of anxiety and depression among children. Often, parents are not able to recognise these symptoms among kids and pass them off as a child being irritable or moody. I have seen many patients who reach out for different diagnostics but during consultancy, we find that the child is suffering from anxiety. Being confined to homes for a longer period of time, increased screen time, and listening to negative news about the pandemic has impacted children heavily."
Many parents believe that reopening schools after getting a significant number of children vaccinated will help in reducing anxiety among the kids. However, parents will need data-backed proof before signing up.
Anubha Sahai, president of the India Wide Parents Association, said, “While most parents are in favor of vaccination, they also need to be sure that it does not have any negative impact on the kids, there are no side effects or complications. On the one hand, we have a section of children who are suffering from too much screentime, but there are also students who could not afford online classes and are suffering great learning losses for 1.5 years now. If vaccination is allowed for children, we can save these kids from lagging behind academically."
Reopening schools with precautions will also ensure an improvement in the mental health of students, added Sahai.
Jagvinder Kaur, a mother to a 10-year-old, said, “If schools reopen, that would be an added benefit, but as a mother, my first priority is to ensure my child is safe. His health is my priority." Kaur is one of the thousands of Twitter activists demanding vaccination for children.
Dr Arindam Mitra from the microbiology department at Adamas University in West Bengal, who teaches virology, said that if the government is able to vaccinate the majority of the adult population, it would reduce the viral load from children and would keep them safe. So the focus should continue to be on those above 18. Even after vaccination, younger kids would not be called back to schools soon, said the professor. “People will have to continue to follow protocols even after being vaccinated. While in young adults and pre-teens it is easier to explain to them and make them follow protocols, among younger kids the situation is different and schools are unlikely to call these kids anytime soon," he said.
The government had reopened schools in the interim of 2020-21. It was a phased reopening and students from classes 9 to 12 only got to visit schools, and that too in limited numbers. Kids below 10 have not been to school in over a year now. Manit Jain, chairman at FICCI ARISE, said keeping younger kids away from campuses for so long will lead to heavy learning losses and can be “extremely detrimental for their socio-emotional health".
“All kids have different needs and all of them are important. While we have been recalling elder kids back, younger kids, too, need our attention. It would only be possible if we have a safe vaccine for them. The government first needs to share the data on vaccines, their efficiency, and share a detailed plan for kids; otherwise, parents will be very apprehensive," he said.