Wimbledon has started and cricket enthusiasts have just enjoyed a wonderful series of matches between England and New Zealand. This must mean that summer has arrived even if no one has communicated this with sufficient conviction to the sun!
Although the days are long and there will be no properly cold weather for several months, Covid is still with us, unfortunately. We must all hope, however, that we never see a return to the policies that marked so much of the world during 2020-21: lockdowns, mask-wearing, striking limitations to traditionally accepted individual freedoms and the closure of schools.
Here in the United Kingdom, there will shortly be a public inquiry into the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever conclusions that inquiry reaches, there is an increasingly widely accepted view that schools should never have been closed. No less a figure than the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, has confirmed that he now accepts this is the case. Covid-19 is a virus which adversely affected the old and those with serious medical conditions but its impact on the young was negligible. Figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that just thirty-seven children under the age of nineteen died of Covid between 3 January 2020 and 7 May 2021. Research conducted by The Lancet identifies that seventy young people aged between three months and seventeen years of age died from swine ‘flu during the epidemic in 2009. Yet, at that time, there was never any suggestion that we should be closing schools.
Even though Covid presented little risk to young people, it could be argued that they carried the heaviest burden during the pandemic. Their education and social development were adversely affected, their opportunities for play and exercise were curtailed and, for the most vulnerable, they were deprived of the protection and safeguarding which are provided by attendance at school.
Although we are governed by laws, relations both between individuals and between them and the institutions which shape our society are largely based on a series of unwritten arrangement and expectations. This is often referred to as a social contract and one of its key features is that adults have a duty to protect the young. It is at least arguable that this key element of the social contract was inverted during the pandemic: the young were expected to make huge sacrifices to protect adults.
It will be many years before we know the full impact of school closures but there is already significant evidence of delayed social, emotional and educational development and of long-term harm to children’s mental health. There are, of course, catch-up plans in place and we must hope that these undo much of the damage inflicted during 2020 and the first half of 2021. This is not simply because society needs to re-establish the social contract under which adults take responsibility for the care of children. It is because the future of society depends on the creativity, energy, entrepreneurship and natural collaborative attributes of the young.
Even the most optimistic among us recognise that there are huge problems facing the world. Inequality threatens social cohesion, our cities are in need of rejuvenation, there is serious tension between the need to maintain living standards and the environmental harm caused by industrialisation, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens to bring about widespread famine and undermine our faith in a rules-based international order.
Now, more than ever, we need young people to generate ideas as to how we might overcome these problems. Their ability to do so will be destroyed if we ever again subordinate their legitimate needs to those of adults. We must re-establish the social contract under which adults agree to protect the young and put their interests first and we must make it a priority to listen to their ideas.
Gerard Silverlock, Lumi Global Schools Ambassador, June 2022