By David Myles
The writer is a pediatrician at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on State Government Affairs and is on the editorial board of the journal Pediatrics. Additionally, he serves as a Rockville city councilmember.
The U.S. has a long history of proclaiming support for its children which stands in stark contrast with how this country actually treats this vulnerable group. The most obvious example of this disconnect is how children are being harmed during the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While some of the most egregious insults include prohibiting mask mandates in schools, more sinister and lethal are the recommendations coming from some pediatricians and public health experts suggesting that children should not be prioritized for COVID vaccines and that children can be allowed to ignore six-foot physical distancing guidelines for the sake of having them back in school.
While many agree that children benefit from learning in-person, it is galling that people tasked with protecting children are actively putting them in harm’s way. Furthermore, most children are not eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and are not given the ability to decide for themselves whether they should attend classrooms that literally put their health at risk.
Another obvious area in which children are mistreated stems from the failed attempts to address climate change in a way proportional to the crisis that it is. It is clear that humans have caused a significant amount of disruption in the environment. It is also clear that we have the scientific tools to address it.
What is lacking is political will. It is plausible that not enough political capital had historically been spent on climate change because of key decisionmakers’ inability to see the effects of it in their lifetimes. We can all agree that the unprecedented wildfires, drought and heatwaves we have experienced signify that change is occurring in real-time.
That is why it is disheartening that only milquetoast solutions are being negotiated at the highest levels of government to address this existential crisis. As much as we would like to leave the planet in better shape than we found it, we cannot even guarantee that we can leave it as we found it.
One of the most insidious and chronic assaults to children exists in how early care and education (commonly referred to as “child care”) is regarded, funded and implemented. This has been more salient during this pandemic as many families have difficulty obtaining needed child care. Providers have also struggled during this pandemic with nearly a quarter of facilities remaining shuttered since the pandemic began.
Prior to the pandemic, child care centers operated at thin financial profit margins and many providers earn meager wages. It defies logic that we would place our most precious resource (our children) in the care of individuals who are financially struggling. However, there are sexist and racist reasons that such work has been relegated to the margins and continues to lack the interest and investment consistent with the vital service provided.
This sordid history has implications to the present-day patch work of child care that is often too expensive and inaccessible.
All is not lost, however. There are tangible things that each one of us can do to protect our children and, by extension, ourselves.
With few exceptions, everybody 12 and older should get the COVID-19 vaccine and encourage others to do the same. Doing so will provide protection for children who cannot currently get vaccinated. Second, we should advocate for a federal executive order to mandate all evidence-based public health measures (including masking) that will mitigate this pandemic. There is precedent for this in some of the World War II executive orders. Third, we must contact our elected officials to ensure that the human infrastructure bill is passed to support child care providers and parents. Finally, we must ensure that robust legislation is passed, enacted and enforced to significantly blunt the most extreme aspects of the climate apocalypse we are experiencing.
These challenges and solutions are daunting and will require personal and political will to enact.
As Americans and Marylanders, we do not ignore challenges, we confront them. Therefore, let us all agree that children are important and act accordingly.