Will the children be all right?

Will the children be all right? We all hope that, yes, most will get through this pandemic reasonably well. Their risk of serious illness from COVID is slight – more on that later – and from September 13, children aged between 12 and 15 will be able to access the Pfizer vaccine. There is no vaccine approved for children under 12, but trials of Pfizer and Moderna are underway.

The emotional discussion around children has come when we are having a somewhat ludicrous debate about “Zero COVID” versus “Living with COVID” when we know that the serious discussion is about the nuance in the middle.

Nobody serious – certainly not the Doherty Institute on whose modelling our national plan relies – says that at a 70 per cent vaccination rate, it’s a free for all. Institute director Professor Sharon Lewin has made clear that measures such as masks, checking in, testing, tracing and isolation, as well as limited lockdowns in hotspots, are all part of the model. It’s about a gradual transition.

Similarly, few seriously suggest that Australia can plan for a future of zero cases of COVID. Again, under the Doherty modelling, it’s about enough people being vaccinated so that our health system is not overrun by inevitable cases. In that scenario, harsh lockdowns can ease, and at 80 per cent, be all but unnecessary.

But there will be cases and there will be deaths from COVID – when 70 per cent of the population is vaccinated, for instance, if we reopen with low or no cases and manage to keep it that way, the best we can hope for is fewer than 3,000 symptomatic cases of COVID-19 in six months, and 13 people are likely to die. And this depends on testing and tracing being maintained at high levels.

At least we now have clarity from Doherty that its modelling of a pathway out of the pandemic is not affected by the nation’s rising number of new infections. We will obviously have a lot more illness and death, though, if we open up with hundreds or thousands of cases. This makes it more realistic to think that within six months there would be close to 390,000 cases and more than 1500 deaths.

At some point, we have to reopen, and the politics and the simple arguments are not helping any of us. The discussion around children has also been too simple at times, but the emotion is understandable. We will do anything we can to protect our children – that is a sacred duty of adults, parents or not.

I am not the only one to worry about the long-term impacts of our COVID response on children of all ages. This week, we reported that the federal Department of Education estimates that Victorian students have experienced as many as 39 weeks of interrupted schooling due to full or partial school closures since the pandemic began, including at least 21 weeks of remote learning. NSW students have endured 14 weeks.

We know that disadvantaged children are particularly affected by remote learning. We know that the mental health of our children and adolescents is suffering. And we know what they are missing out on beyond class-based learning – all those intangibles like friendships, exploring the world and precious family milestones.

We can worry all we like – and we do – but is there an alternative? It’s fine for various politicians to demand that schools reopen as soon as possible, but who would argue otherwise? Other countries are opening their schools, for instance, but many have far greater vaccination rates than we do. That’s the problem. NSW has announced a return to school plan – from October 25. Victoria has not provided the same details, but one would expect it would be rather similar if vaccination rates are 70 or 80 per cent by the end of October.

The good news – if you can call anything in this pandemic good news – is that overall, children experience very mild symptoms of COVID-19. Our science reporter Liam Mannix, wrote a clear, reasoned Explainer this week on children and COVID.

“They can catch infection easily, but most cases have no or mild symptoms. You might not even know you’ve had COVID-19,” Robert Booy, professor of child health at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, told Liam.

More children are becoming infected with the Delta strain because Delta is more infectious. So, as Liam reported, between July 1 and August 23 this year, people 19 and younger made up 37 per cent of COVID cases. That’s worrying, but it’s because our older people – those most vulnerable – are getting vaccinated and cutting their risk significantly.

Then there are the ethical issues. Should our children be vaccinated when their risk of serious illness and death is so low, when just 1.4 per cent of people in low income countries have received a jab? My guess is that rich countries like ours will say, ‘yes, they should’. People will prioritise their children first. Nobody can blame them on an individual level, but we can at least acknowledge that it’s horribly unfair.

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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