It was thirty-five degrees and there were no fans or aircon for the sixteen kids running around the school gym.
At one point, a seven-year-old boy came up and said something to me.
"What?" I said, bending down.
He pulled down his mask.
"It’s hot," he said, and went back to chasing a ball.
Later, a doleful girl with wet hair just stopped playing.
"What’s wrong?" I said.
"It’s too hot."
I sat next to the supervisor for the class.
"Yesterday I was working out in a gym," I said. "It has big fans and aircon, and no one had to wear masks, so why do these children have to wear them?"
"I’m a believer in kids wearing masks," she said. "If just one of them has Covid, they’ll pass it on, and then they’ll all be in quarantine."
"But we know that kids don’t suffer from ‘Severe Covid’ as much as adults, we’ve vaccinated all the ‘vulnerables’, so why are we doing this to these children?"
"Kids have died from Covid."
"It’s very rare, though," I said.
"Anyway, I don’t want to get it from them."
She sat back, exhaling. "I’m a diabetic."
This seemed to end the conversation, as if challenging someone’s medical status was forbidden. Her comments felt arrogant and controlling, and I suspected her diabetes was diet-related.
I considered her position: I can understand how it’s impossible to rely on children to follow adult guidelines of social distancing and relentlessly sterilising hands, and masks must seem to be the best answer.
But I can’t help feeling a sense of shame. As an adult, I feel complicit in putting children through two years of restrictions for a virus that, statistically, is unlikely to cause them long-term harm.
I’m grateful that I’m in my forties during the pandemic; I feel really sorry for the eighteen to thirty-year-olds who’ve had their youth disrupted, when they are clearly in a lower risk group. If I’d been that age in 2021 I would have been much more reluctant to follow all the ‘guidelines’.
I’m grateful that my son is only five, and he can roll with it with more grace than I can. It must be much harder for older kids; at worst, the last two years’ restrictions have produced higher rates of childhood eating disorders, mental illness and suicide. Children have missed the community of their friends and all the other things school has to offer, from music, dance, sport, cookery and drama, even lessons.
Of course, not all kids are gutted at missing school. When I heard that certain pupils were using lemon juice to fake ‘positive’ readings on PCR tests, my first reaction was, ‘Wow, they’ll go far.’
Yes, faking the tests is wrong and causes chaos, but I couldn’t help admiring kids who use their initiative to game a system which has condemned them to months of homeschooling, or sitting in classrooms wearing masks.
I’m pro-vaccine and protecting people, but I think it’s important to question policies. Personally, I can put up with 2021’s social irritations, from showers randomly shutting at sports clubs, to the litany of cancelled flights and social events.
But I get angry when I see regulations inflicted by adults on children which don’t seem to be saving anyone. If such a high proportion of the Maltese population has been vaccinated, why are children wearing masks in a hot gym? Are we trying to achieve a form of herd immunity, or ‘treading water’ while we wait for vaccines to kick in, and we know more about the Delta variant?
Back in the gym, the supervisor inhaled and sat up.
"When they run," she said, "they can pull their masks down."
"Yes, but do they?"
"Hey everyone!" she called out. "Don’t forget to pull your mask down when you run."
Few of the children remembered this in their excitement. It all seemed self-defeating: surely when you’re running along and breathing hard, you spread more ‘aerosols’ then when you’re standing still?
Ultimately, I’m glad that the kids in the gym showed a greater spirit and resilience than whining grown-ups like me. Young people are our most precious ‘assets’, and we need to make their lives as safe and as fun as possible.
At least the children in the gym have frequent water breaks. Now, two weeks after I’d pressed for them, the organiser of the sports programme has provided some fans, so the gym has its own ‘cooling station’, an oasis in the humidity. I’m amazed it has taken so long, but I’m glad it has finally happened.
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