Are the kids alright? Social isolation can take a toll, but play can help


Pasi Sahlberg, UNSW and Sharon Goldfeld, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute

Many parents are worried the disruptions of COVID lockdowns and school closures may affect their children’s mental health and development.

In the Royal Children’s Hospital’s National Child Health Poll in June 2020, more than one-third of parents reported the pandemic has had negative consequences on their children’s mental health. Almost half of parents said the pandemic had also been harmful to their own mental health.

Many parents spent at least some months this year supporting their children to learn from home (and still are, in Victoria). This already substantial challenge was complicated by children not being able to go out and play with other children. In Victoria, such restrictions are still in place, although some have been relaxed and playgrounds are open.

Still, it’s fair to say that across the country, some children are not socially engaging with their peers in the same way they did before. This is not only detrimental to children’s learning but also their physical and mental health. It is understandable if parents are worried.

What social isolation means for kids

In June 2020, in the context of COVID-19, a group of researchers in the UK reviewed 80 studies to find how social isolation and loneliness could impact the mental health of previously healthy children. They found social isolation increased the risk of depression and possibly anxiety, and these effects could last several years.

Read more:
How to help young children regulate their emotions and behaviours during the pandemic

The review also concluded loneliness puts children’s well-being at risk of these things long after the social isolation period is over.

The impact of social isolation may be particularly significant for children with special educational needs, when support provided at school to them is interrupted.

Other children – perhaps those living in medium and high-density housing with limited access to outdoor play space – may also be particularly vulnerable to the effects of social isolation.

Father and son racing a toy train on a track.
Playing with your kids can help them feel less lonely.

Some parents with only one child have also voiced concerns about loneliness.

It is difficult to substitute what real human interaction with peers means to a child. Active engagement in creative play alone or physical activity with parents can be helpful for children who miss the company of their friends.

The power of play

What could possibly fix this situation? The answer is: help children play.

The benefits of regular play are many and they are well documented in research. Paediatricians say play improves children’s language skills, early maths knowledge, peer relations, social and physical development and learning how to get new skills.

When children can’t play for any reason, anxiety and toxic stress can harm the healthy development of social behaviours.

Read more:
Let them play! Kids need freedom from play restrictions to develop

During the pandemic, play can be an effective tonic for stress and can encourage the development of positive behaviours.

When children play together, play effects become even more powerful. Experts say social play can help children develop skills in cooperation, communication, negotiation, conflict resolution and empathy.

In social play, children can rehearse and role play real-world situations safely. Through play, they make sense of the world and process change. Parents playing with their children help children play better with their peers.

Group of kids playing
When children play together, the benefits of normal play are enhanced.

Now is the time to stress the importance of play. A survey done by the Gonski Institute in 2019 showed four out of five Australians believe today’s children are under pressure to grow up too quickly. More than 70% think the lifelong benefits children gained from play, such as creativity and empathy, are mostly ignored today.

Research from previous pandemics shows we need well-planned and coordinated solutions to potentially long-term emotional issues. We can embrace the role of play to mitigate the losses children have experienced while living through a pandemic.

What can parents do?

Children need both guided indoor play and free play ourdoors. Playing with family members at home, or with friends at school, are good for social play.

Digital devices can provide children a way to play together with their friends when they can’t meet with them. But the benefits of play are more long-lasting through social play in person.

Parks, green spaces and quiet streets are suitable for outdoor play. Natural environments both soothe and stimulate children, while connecting them to their environment and community. So here are four things you can do to encourage play.

1. Make time for play

The most important thing you can do is to make time every day for your children to play. Take play time seriously and show your children you value it for the benefit of their well-being, health and learning.

2. Set clear guidelines to technology use at home

It is important to talk with your children about safe and responsible use of digital media and technology. This may require agreeing to put some limits to the use of screens at home, and encourage children to actively engage with friends by playing interactive games when using digital devices.

Read more:
Child’s play in the time of COVID: screen games are still ‘real’ play

3. Go out whenever possible

A recent review of nearly 200 studies found “green time” — time in parks, nature reserves and woods — appeared to be associated with favourable psychological outcomes, while high levels of screen time appeared to be associated with unfavourable psychological outcomes.

Parks and playgrounds are open now in Victoria, while in other states they have been for some time.

So find fun outdoor exploratory activities for your children, and where possible bring other kids along.

4. Be a role model of all of the above

Children often mimic their parents. The best way to ensure children grow up healthy and happy is to be a role model to them. More play, and enough quality time outdoors with children is good for your own health and happiness, too.

For more see the Raising Children Network and the Gonski Institute.The Conversation

Pasi Sahlberg, Professor of Education Policy, UNSW and Sharon Goldfeld, Director, Center for Community Child Health Royal Children’s Hospital; Professor, Department of Paediatrics, University of Melbourne; Theme Director Population Health, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is it time for Australia to implement kids-only COVID-19 briefings?


Susan Whatman, Griffith University

There are many ways children absorb public health messaging about COVID-19. They may receive information from social media platforms like TikTok, via direct text messages, or through daily briefings from state chief medical officers and politicians on television.

The messages to stay safe during the pandemic are essential, but there are a couple of things we need make sure of when communicating advice to children.

First, they must be educated as well as informed. For example, children may be told to wash their hands without being educated about how it helps their personal safety. Knowing the how and why of health behaviours develops children’s health literacy and increases their likelihood of adopting the behaviour.

Second, children need the opportunity to ask questions and have them answered by experts in ways they can understand.

This is where formal COVID briefings for children could help.

Teachers can’t do it all

COVID-19 messaging in classrooms has focused on making sure staff and students are safe by adjusting teaching to account for social distancing requirements.

A recent survey in New South Wales found teachers are feeling pressure to meet daily sanitising requirements with limited supplies. They are overwhelmed with the responsibility to keep children safe and don’t necessarily have the time and energy to help them understand more about the pandemic.

Boy watching virtual class on laptop.
Children-specific briefings might take some of the pressure of teachers who are already overworked adapting to new ways of learning.

Even teachers who are delivering lessons remotely during lockdown are adapting to the time demands of teaching via technology. So they don’t have the opportunity to explore children’s hopes, fears and thirst for knowledge about coronavirus.

Other countries have done it

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg hosted a press conference for children in March, together with the minister of children and families and the education minister.

Children were invited to send their questions in advance to the local media, who passed the questions along to the prime minister to answer.

Read more:
Children might play a bigger role in COVID transmission than first thought. Schools must prepare

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also hosted a live-streamed press conference especially for children.

And Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin brought along her minister for education and minister for science and culture to a similar press conference in April, where children 7-12 years old were invited to submit video questions.

Which approach was best?

All three conferences respected children’s right to be heard and honoured their right to political participation in having a say over the COVID education they received.

But there was a key difference between the Scandinavian conferences and New Zealand’s. In place of politicians, accompanying Ardern were Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist, and Michelle Dickinson, a children’s science communicator also known as “Nanogirl”.

One of Dickinson’s videos, which she posted on Twitter, explains, using age-appropriate language and models, how soap destroys the virus. It’s been viewed more than 34,500 times.

Politicians have a responsibility to explain how the government is addressing public needs relevant to their portfolio, but there is no certainty a particular minister is an expert in that field. This is why an expert panel should be offered to children to answer the unpredictable and varied questions they might ask.

Read more:
‘We had no sanitiser, no soap and minimal toilet paper’: here’s how teachers feel about going back to the classroom

How should a kids-only briefing be run in Australia?

In deciding how to run such a conference in Australia, we can learn from the questions asked by the children at these previous events.

The Norwegian conference prioritised mental health, distributing advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to “support each other” and offer “compassion and kindness”.

The New Zealand conference took a more educative approach to explain how things happen, such as how soap destroys the fat layer of the virus. This resonates with many of the key ideas of the Australian Health and Physical Education curriculum, such as taking a strengths-based approach (seeing young people as having resources to solve problems), developing health literacy, and focusing on educative outcomes, rather than just focussing on changing a child’s behaviour.

Two children wearing masks looking out a window
Having an expert explain to children the psychology behind the uncertainty, anxiety and helplessess of living under COVID restrictions could be beneficial.

The Finnish conference was dominated by questions like “when can we go back to school?”, “is the situation in Finland good? (compared to other countries)” and “why can’t I hold my birthday party?”

The role of the experts could be to help children gain a better understanding of the psychology behind the uncertainty, anxiety and helplessness they may be feeling from living under COVID restrictions.

Kids should hear from experts

It is entirely appropriate that our prime minister should lead an Australian panel of experts from a variety of disciplines to answer questions from children. A COVID briefing for children would help the government take children’s views seriously and switch the narrative from one-way, informed compliance to a two-way educated conversation.

Read more:
‘Stupid coronavirus!’ In uncertain times, we can help children through mindfulness and play

Children deserve to have access to expert knowledge in order to make informed decisions about their own health behaviours and their role in the wider community in these COVID-19 times.

Health education is comprised of many sub-disciplines, requiring general classroom teachers to acquire new and diverse knowledge sets at a time when rapidly changing teaching demands have pushed them to the brink of exhaustion.

A televised COVID briefing with a multidisciplinary panel of experts would not only satisfy children’s right to access quality knowledge, but also create an enduring, age-appropriate resource to help schools, teachers and the wider community into the future.The Conversation

Susan Whatman, Senior Lecturer in HPE and Sports Pedagogy, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Children might play a bigger role in COVID transmission than first thought. Schools must prepare


Zoë Hyde, University of Western Australia

Over the weekend, the World Health Organisation made an announcement you might have missed.

It recommended children aged 12 years and older should wear masks, and that masks should be considered for those aged 6-11 years. The German Society for Virology went further, recommending masks be worn by all children attending school.

This seems at odds with what we assumed about kids and COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. Indeed, one positive in this pandemic so far has been that children who contract the virus typically experience mild illness. Most children don’t require hospitalisation and very few die from the disease. However, some children can develop a severe inflammatory syndrome similar to Kawasaki disease, although this is thankfully rare.

This generally mild picture has contributed to cases in children being overlooked. But emerging evidence suggests children might play a bigger role in transmission than originally thought. They may be equally as infectious as adults based on the amount of viral genetic material found in swabs, and we have seen large school clusters emerge in Australia and around the world.

How likely are children to be infected?

Working out how susceptible children are has been difficult. Pre-emptive school closures occurred in many countries, removing opportunities for the virus to circulate in younger age groups. Children have also missed out on testing because they typically have mild symptoms. In Australia, testing criteria were initially very restrictive. People had to have a fever or a cough to be tested, which children don’t always have. This hindered our ability to detect cases in children, and created a perception children weren’t commonly infected.

One way to address this issue is through antibody testing, which can detect evidence of past infection. A study of over 60,000 people in Spain found 3.4% of children and teenagers had antibodies to the virus, compared with 4.4% to 6.0% of adults. But Spain’s schools were also closed, which likely reduced children’s exposure.

Another method is to look at what happens to people living in the same household as a known case. The results of these studies are mixed. Some have suggested a lower risk for children, while others have suggested children and adults are at equal risk.

Children might have some protection compared to adults, because they have less of the enzyme which the virus uses to enter the body. So, given the same short exposure, a child might be less likely to be infected than an adult. But prolonged contact probably makes any such advantage moot.

The way in which children and adults interact in the household might explain the differences seen in some studies. This is supported by a new study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children and partners of a known case were more likely to be infected than other people living in the same house. This suggests the amount of close, prolonged contact may ultimately be the deciding factor.

How often do children transmit the virus?

Several studies show children and adults have similar amounts of viral RNA in their nose and throat. This suggests children and adults are equally infectious, although it’s possible children transmit the virus slightly less often than adults in practice. Because children are physically smaller and generally have more mild symptoms, they might release less of the virus.

In Italy, researchers looked at what happened to people who’d been in contact with infected children, and found the contacts of children were more likely to be infected than the contacts of adults with the virus.

Teenagers are of course closer to adults, and it’s possible younger children might be less likely to transmit the virus than older children. However, reports of outbreaks in childcare centres and primary schools suggest there’s still some risk.

What have we seen in schools?

Large clusters have been reported in schools around the world, most notably in Israel. There, an outbreak in a high school affected at least 153 students, 25 staff members, and 87 others. Interestingly, that particular outbreak coincided with an extreme heatwave where students were granted an exemption from having to wear face masks, and air conditioning was used continuously.

At first glance, the Australian experience seems to suggest a small role for children in transmission. A study of COVID-19 in educational settings in New South Wales in the first half of the year found limited evidence of transmission, although a large outbreak was noted to have occurred in a childcare centre.

This might seem reassuring, but it’s important to remember the majority of cases in Australia were acquired overseas at the time of the study, and there was limited community transmission. Also, schools switched to distance learning during the study, after which school attendance dropped to 5%. This suggests school safety is dependent on the level of community transmission.

Additionally, we shouldn’t be reassured by examples where children have not transmitted the virus to others. Approximately 80% of secondary COVID-19 cases are generated by only 10% of people. There are also many examples where adults haven’t transmitted the virus.

As community transmission has grown in Victoria, so has the significance of school clusters. The Al-Taqwa College outbreak remains one of Australia’s largest clusters. Importantly, the outbreak there has been linked to other clusters in Melbourne, including a major outbreak in the city’s public housing towers.

Close schools when community transmission is high

This evidence means we need to take a precautionary approach. When community transmission is low, face-to-face teaching is probably low-risk. But schools should switch to distance learning during periods of sustained community transmission. If we fail to address the risk of school outbreaks, they can spread into the wider community.

While most children won’t become severely ill if they contract the virus, the same cannot be said for their adult family members or their teachers. In the US, 40% of teachers have risk factors for severe COVID-19, as do 28.6 million adults living with school-aged children.

Children walk to school with masks
In the US, 40% of teachers have risk factors for severe COVID-19, as do 28.6 million adults living with school-aged children.

Recent recommendations on mask-wearing by older and younger children mirror risk-reduction guidelines for schools developed by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. These guidelines stress the importance of face masks, improving ventilation, and the regular disinfection of shared surfaces.

The changing landscape

As the virus has spread more widely, the demographic profile of cases has changed. The virus is no longer confined to adult travellers and their contacts, and children are now commonly infected. In Germany, the proportion of children in the number of new infections is now consistent with their share of the total population.

While children are thankfully much less likely to experience severe illness than adults, we must consider who children have contact with and how they can contribute to community transmission. Unless we do, we won’t succeed in controlling the pandemic.The Conversation

Zoë Hyde, Senior Research Officer, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To safeguard children’s mental health during COVID-19, parents must look after their own


Sarah Whittle, University of Melbourne and Kate Bray, University of Melbourne

The negative mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are clear, but there is particular concern children will be most affected in the long run.

By the end of March school closures were impacting 91% of the world’s student population and are still affecting more than 60%. These closures limit children’s opportunities for important social interactions, which can harm their mental health.

In particular, home confinement, fears of infection, family stress and financial loss may have negative effects on the mental health of young people. And research carried out earlier in the pandemic suggested these effects may be most pronounced for children with pre-existing mental health problems.

Which children are most at risk?

Parents have an important role to play in safeguarding children’s mental health during COVID-19.

Research shows family relationships are more influential during situations that cause stress over an extended period of time than during acute periods of stress. This means family factors are likely to be even more important to childrens’ mental health during COVID-19 than during more fleeting traumatic experiences such as exposure to a natural disaster.

Parents and their child sitting on a park bench, wearing masks.
The family is most influential during situations that cause stress over an extended period of time.

In our recent study, we found 81% of children aged 5-17 had experienced at least one trauma symptom during the early phase of COVID-19. For instance, some children had trouble sleeping alone, or acted unusually young or old for their age.

Our unpublished research relied on reports from parents from Australia and the United Kingdom. We also found increases in emotional problems were common. For instance, according to their parents 29% of children were more unhappy than they were before COVID-19.

Importantly, our study found several parent and family factors that were important in predicting changes in children’s mental health problems.

Here are four of our main findings.

Read more:
Number of Australia’s vulnerable children is set to double as COVID-19 takes its toll

1. Parents’ distress matters

Increased personal distress reported by parents was related to increases in their child’s mental health problems during COVID-19. This distress refers to both general stress in addition to COVID-specific worry and distress. It also includes anxiety related to problems that existed before COVID-19.

For this reason it’s important parents look after their own mental health and stress levels. Seeking psychological help is a good option for parents who are struggling to cope.

Through a GP referral, Australians can receive ten sessions of psychological care per year through Medicare. Victorians who are currently subjected to further restrictions can now receive up to 20 sessions.

A woman with her head in her hand while her children jump on a couch.
If you’re a parent struggling during the pandemic, there’s help available. Though Medicare you can receive 10 sessions of psychological care, or 20 sessions is you’re a Victorian.

2. Good family relationships help

Higher levels of parental warmth and family cohesion were associated with fewer trauma symptoms in children. “Parental warmth” refers to being interested in what your child does, or encouraging them to talk to you about what they think; “family cohesion” relates to family members helping and supporting each other.

In other research these factors have consistently been found to relate to children’s adjustment to stress and trauma.

Read more:
P is for Pandemic: kids’ books about coronavirus

Fortunately, there is a range of resources parents can use to help improve relationships with their children.

Some parents may also find taking part in a parenting course helpful. Partners in Parenting, Triple P and Tuning into Kids are available online.

3. Parents’ optimism can be contagious

Daughter and mother smiling at each other
Children observe their parent’s behaviour – if you can try to see the silver lining your children might too.

While COVID-19 is having many negative impacts, some parents in our study also identified unexpected positive impacts, such as being able to spend more time with family. Children of these parents were less likely to experience an increase in some problems – particularly problems with peers such as being bullied.

Children observe parents’ behaviours and emotions for cues on how to manage their own emotions during difficult times. Trying to stay positive, or focus on the bright side as much as possible is likely to benefit children.

Read more:
Want to see a therapist but don’t know where to start? Here’s how to get a mental health plan

4. Some effects are greatest for vulnerable families

We found parents’ behaviour was particularly influential in lower socioeconomic backgrounds and single-parent families. In poorer families, parental warmth was particularly important in buffering children’s trauma symptoms. And in single-parent families, parental stress was more likely to predict behavioural problems in children.

This may be because poorer and single-parent families already face more stress, which can negatively impact children. Parental warmth can counteract the effects of these stresses, whereas high parental stress levels can increase them.

Research has already shown the pandemic will have greater negative impacts on those who have less resources available to them. This points to a need for extra psychological and financial support for these families. Governments and other organisations will need to take this into account when targeting their support packages.

Read more:
8 tips on what to tell your kids about coronavirus

It’s important to keep in mind child-parent relationships are a two-way street. Our research examined relationships at only one point in time, so we don’t know the extent to which our findings reflect a) parents causing changes in their children’s mental health, or b) changes in children’s mental health impacting parents, or the way a family functions. Research needs to follow children and their families over time to tease apart these possibilities.

Given prevention is always better than cure, parents and families should seek help early to build the right foundations to safeguard the mental health of their children.The Conversation

Sarah Whittle, Associate Professor in Psychiatry, University of Melbourne and Kate Bray, PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Childcare closed to most families, no JobKeeper: what Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdown means for parents and the sector


Kate Noble, Victoria University

Childcare services and most preschools have remained open throughout the COVID-19 restrictions in Australia. From Wednesday, however, Melbourne’s stage 4 restrictions mean most children (except for vulnerable children and those of essential workers) in metropolitan Melbourne will no longer be able to attend early childhood education and care for at least six weeks.

Kindergarten and early childhood centres in regional Victoria, however, remain open to all children.

So, what will not being able to send children to childcare or preschool mean for Melbourne’s families and the early childhood education and care sector?

Read more:
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What it means for families

Around 287,000 children aged 0-4 live in Melbourne. Of these, one-fifth of one year olds and around 90% of four year olds attend a range of early childhood education and care services and preschools.

Most of these children will have to stay at home with their families for at least six weeks, plus school holidays for children attending sessional kindergarten.

Only children whose parents work in permitted industries, or vulnerable children (presumably those in contact with the child protection system or who have a disability, although the details have not yet been announced) will have access to early learning services during this period.

Parents will face similar challenges as parents whose young school children were learning from home in terms two and three. But they’ll be doing this with younger children with different (often greater) needs, without the learning and developmental remote support being provided by schools.

Recent research with parents of schoolchildren shows this is likely to take a significant emotional toll as parents attempt to balance care, early learning and paid work. Guilt and anxiety about not doing any of these jobs well is common among parents.

Women are likely to carry a disproportionate share of the load, and may reduce work hours to support their family. Workforce participation by Australian women already lags behind many countries with more generous childcare policies.

Read more:
We need a new childcare system that encourages women to work, not punishes them for it

What has the government done?

The government put in place a relief package in April to support families and services in the early childhood education and care sector, because many people pulled their children out of childcare.

The government provided centres with around 50% of their revenue based on enrolment numbers between February 17 and March 2, on the basis parents weren’t charged any fees. Services were also able to access JobKeeper for eligible employees.

Childcare was the first sector to lose JobKeeper in July, as part of the transition back to pre-COVID funding arrangements. The federal government is providing a transition payment to operators until September 27. The payment makes up 25% of the childcare service fee revenue from February 17 – March 1.

This is one way of addressing the fact only a few early childhood education and care workers are eligible for JobKeeper. The Minister for Education Dan Tehan told a press conference on Tuesday nearly one-third of the early childhood workforce weren’t eligible for the package.

Read more:
Increasing the childcare subsidy will help struggling families — and the economy

Parents whose income has been reduced due to COVID-19 are eligible for an increase in subsidised hours (up to 100 per week), but they’ll still have to pay the gap fees. For many families who have lost income, these fees are likely to be unaffordable, and the increased allowance won’t make a difference.

Dan Tehan said on Tuesday the federal government (which funds the childcare sector) is working with Victoria on a suitable arrangement for parents and the sector during the stage 4 restrictions. Further announcements are expected later this week.

Will the sector survive a six-week shutdown?

Australia’s mixed model of childcare provision means unlike government schools, there won’t be a common plan rolled out across the sector. Private companies and non-profit and community organisations will need to assess their own situations, make their own plans, and communicate these with families.

Even before the latest restrictions, many providers were struggling to adjust to the transition arrangements and meet additional COVID-related costs. There are instances of services charging parents fees when children were absent, where providers were unable to manage any reduction in income.

Some providers have exhausted their financial reserves and are facing serious financial difficulty.

Some providers have said closing for six weeks is easier than remaining open with low numbers.

Support to providers will be critical to ensuring services can remain open for families of permitted workers, and open their doors too all families as restrictions are eased.

What are the options, and what if this happens again?

The transition payment to childcare operators was designed to support the shift back to stage one and two restrictions — it is not fit for stage 3 or 4 restrictions. This payment to providers should be increased to ensure they can survive the next few months.

The government should be considering several options, geared towards minimising damage and disruption for children, families and the sector.

JobKeeper could be reintroduced for early childhood educators to protect educators’ jobs and support services. But while JobKeeper provided a guaranteed level of funding to support employers and employees, large numbers of casual early childhood educators were not eligible.

A better option would be to temporarily increase the federal government’s transition payment to services, with the remainder of services’ revenue made up by fees from parents whose children are still attending, and federal government subsidies. This could also be improved by strengthening the employment guarantee provisions for educators.

The employment guarantee linked to the transitional payment only requires employees to keep their jobs, which for many casuals may mean only a few shifts per week.

Read more:
Childcare is critical for COVID-19 recovery. We can’t just snap back to ‘normal’ funding arrangements

This may not be the last time we experience stage 4 restrictions in Australia. The childcare sector has been near collapse, followed by government rescue twice in 2020, in stark contrast with the stable schools system, that has been able to focus all their attention on children’s and educators’ learning and well-being.

It’s time for Australia to get serious about developing a more sustainable system that provides high quality and genuinely affordable early learning to all Australians, which is not at constant risk of collapse as we navigate the challenges of COVID-19.The Conversation

Kate Noble, Education Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

COVID-19 could see thousands of women miss out on having kids, creating a demographic disaster for Australia

Liz Allen, Australian National University

COVID-19 lockdowns have led to suggestions there could be a “coronial” baby boom.

But while a baby boom as a side effect of the devastating pandemic sounds kind of nice, it is probably too good to be true.

What is more likely is that Australians will delay or forego having children because of coronavirus. This could be personally devastating for people and a demographic disaster for the country.

What are people really up to?

The pandemic has seen the birth of terms such as “corona thirst”, based on the assumption people are having more sex than usual due to all the extra time at home with nothing much to do.

A United States poll released in June signalled a COVID-induced sexual enlightenment, with 54% of surveyed couples reporting they were being more adventurous in bed.

Read more:
The safest sex you’ll never have: how coronavirus is changing online dating

The ABC has also recently reported an increase in sales at adult stores and strong demand for dating apps. Meanwhile, last month, Chemist Warehouse pointed to a 30% spike in pregnancy test sales.

But despite all the hype, all signs point to fewer babies being born as a result of COVID-19, not more. For one thing, pregnancy test purchases are more likely to reflect women trying to avoid seeing a doctor in person, rather than a prelude to a boom.

We do not have the necessary ingredients for a boom

It takes more than sex (or more sex) to have a baby boom. The necessary ingredients include more people partnering and reduced contraception use among couples and we are not seeing evidence of either of these things.

The fact that gathering places like pubs and bars are either closed or restricted is limiting opportunities to meet people and interact in real life. Decreased rates of sexually transmitted infections point to a reduction in the formation of new relationships, regardless of the increased use of dating apps.

Social distancing and lockdown has made it difficult for people to meet new partners.
James Gourley/AAP

And despite all the talk about adventurous sex, it’s also highly unlikely couples will suddenly decide to increase their intended family size.

For one thing, additional, forced time with loved ones tends to strain, not nurture, relationships. Rising domestic violence rates has also show the pandemic has been unsafe for too many others.

Read more:
Love lockdown: the pandemic has put pressure on many relationships, but here’s how to tell if yours will survive

All the uncertainty and socioeconomic scarcity – including the inability to have basic needs, like toilet paper, met and record unemployment – also means even established, happy couples are likely to postpone having children.

It is important to note that birth rates dropped dramatically during the Great Depression, from an average of around three births per woman to about two – a substantial decline in terms of magnitude and the time it took to fall.

This offers the most comparable historical event to COVID-19, given the expectation of long-term economic doldrums due to the pandemic.

Headed for demographic disaster

Australia’s birth rate of 1.74 births per woman is already in decline, down from 2.02 in 2008. We can expect COVID-19 to exacerbate this trend.

This is a huge worry. Because, if we fall to or below a birth rate of 1.5, this is well below replacement level and places the future tax base at risk. Simply put, we won’t have enough people to work and pay taxes and fund all the roads, hospitals and welfare initiatives we need to function as a country.

Read more:
Solving the ‘population problem’ through policy

This is a demographic disaster, leading to declining socioeconomic well-being. Future generations will have to cover the bill for far more than we have had to, meaning the Australia they inherit will be worse off.

Even more worryingly, once birth rates fall to around 1.5, they don’t tend to bounce back, because social norms around children and family become ingrained even if there are incentives to change.

While countries typically rely on increased immigration to balance demographic and workforce needs, this may not be possible in the same way, due to the pandemic.

The individual impact

For people who are hoping to have children in the near future, COVID-19 has presented new and no doubt stressful challenges.

Not only is it difficult to meet potential partners, but there have been extra constraints of accessing assisted reproductive technologies. Cancellation of elective surgery during the initial COVID-19 outbreak saw some IVF treatments postponed.

Melbourne’s worsening pandemic situation is now likely to cause further IVF delays.

Even with the resumption of IVF, prospective parents may have missed their chance to have a family or increase the size of the one they already have.

Demographic ripples

Not much is known about childlessness among men in Australia because the census doesn’t include this information and research typically focuses on women.

But we do know that at the 2016 Census, roughly 30% of women towards the end of their reproductive years aged between 30-44 years reported not having any children.

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Around half of these women would have been childfree by choice, if the distribution from a 2013 Australian qualitative study was applied.

This roughly translates to around a quarter of a million women being childless against their choice, due to not having a partner or requiring assisted reproductive technology (including same-sex attracted women).

The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey also tells us people don’t have as many children as they plan to at the best of times. The number of children adults intend to have typically reduces over time as people realise and experience the barriers confronted by parents trying to juggle paid work, family and life.

Families may not be able to expand as they planned, due to coronavirus.

All these factors, combined with these raw numbers, conservatively suggests thousands of women will be left stranded in their childbearing years. While some of course may still have children down the track, for others, the window for childbearing will close sooner and more definitively because of COVID-19.

For some existing parents, they will not have as many additional children as they hoped for.

This is a heartbreaking individual outcome, as well as one that will send ripples into the nation’s future demography.

Demographic recovery

Post-coronavirus recovery requires comprehensive efforts to build and invest in the demographic capital of the nation, now and into the future.

This means we need to help families achieve their intended family size. The provision of accessible childcare, adequate support for the long-term unemployed and financial supports for people accessing IVF are just starters.

It’s going to be a rough road ahead. Sadly, for many Australians, it will be marked by significant personal heartache, with the ripple effects felt at a population level.The Conversation

Liz Allen, Demographer, ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Increasing the childcare subsidy will help struggling families — and the economy


Sarah Pilcher, Victoria University and Kate Noble, Victoria University

In April, the federal government put in place an emergency relief package to support families and operators in the early childhood education and care sector, as many people pulled their children out of childcare.

The government provided centres with around 50% of their revenue based on enrolment numbers between February 17 and March 2, on the basis parents weren’t charged any fees. Services were also able to access JobKeeper for eligible employees.

This package came to an end on Monday. Parents will now resume paying fees and the government will resume paying the childcare subsidy.

There is additional flexibility for parents in metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell shire – the Victorian areas under stage 3 restrictions – where services can temporarily waive fees for parents if children are not attending care.

There will also be a transition period across the country. JobKeeper payments will cease and be replaced by a transition payment for services — 25% of their February revenue.

But going back to pre-COVID-19 settings — even with modifications — is risky.
Australia’s existing childcare subsidy system is not fit-for-purpose in the context of COVID-19.

Our analysis shows many families who have lost income or jobs will be worse off when the subsidy system restarts. Many parents have relied on fee-free childcare to keep children engaged in early learning and maintain stability throughout the crisis.

A survey conducted in May found 42% of families were experiencing income loss. Of these, nearly two-thirds would need to reduce childcare days or remove their child altogether from early learning once parent fees were reintroduced.

Our analysis shows the government should increase the childcare subsidy for families on low to medium incomes — either temporarily or permanently. This would involve increasing the highest subsidy rate from 85% to 95%.

Families on a combined income under $173,163 would benefit, with those on the lowest incomes benefiting most.

The high costs of childcare

Before COVID-19 hit, early childhood education and care in Australia was already bordering on unaffordable. Fees absorb nearly one-fifth of many families’ household incomes.

Even after government subsidies, many parents pay more to have a child in early learning than they would to send a child to a private primary school.

So far, the government has announced several small changes to the pre-COVID arrangements once fees resume.

There will be a temporary easing of the activity test for 12 weeks from July 13. This means families working and studying less can access more hours of subsidised childcare. But they’ll still need to pay at least 15% of childcare fees.

The additional childcare subsidy also provides temporary free childcare to families experiencing significant financial hardship. But it is unclear who will be eligible, and current data shows that processing times can be lengthy.

Without early learning, or disruption to it, children are at risk of educational delay.

The additional childcare subsidy provides temporary free childcare and remains available for families experiencing temporary financial hardship.

While these measures will help some families, they are unlikely to be enough to counter the unprecedented economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Vast numbers will be faced with a decision on whether they can afford to keep their child engaged in early education and care.

And we know children removed from early learning, or with only intermittent access to it, face disruption to their routine, and possibly developmental and educational delays.

So, what are the options?

Some have argued for an overhaul of the childcare system to make childcare permanently free. One of the main barriers to this is cost. Estimates suggest this would cost in excess of A$24 billion per year, compared with the current cost of around $8 billion per year.

Others have pushed for a temporary extension of fee-free care, arguing it would support women and families financially and reduce risks for women in unsafe home situations.

Another option is a universal entitlement of up to 20 hours of free care per week, to ensure access for all children, while allowing parents to pay for additional hours above the entitlement. This policy recognises children’s right to early learning, and would be more straightforward than our current complex arrangements.

We argue an equitable and cost-effective option is to increase the subsidy for families on a combined income of A$68,163 from 85% to 95%, tapering to 50% for families with a combined income of $173,163.

The Grattan Institute estimates increasing the highest rate of the childcare subsidy to 95% would cost an additional A$5 billion per year.

Our analysis shows this could save low-income families close to half of their current childcare fees, making it easier for struggling families to keep their children engaged in early learning.

This would provide a triple dividend by supporting children’s access to early learning, putting more money back into family budgets and supporting economic recovery.

Beyond 2020, an ambitious and fair reform agenda aimed at improving educational outcomes and reducing inequality should consider a range of policy options.

But for now, increasing subsidy rates for low to medium income families is the best way to support access for children, parents’ workforce participation and economic recovery — as well as ensure the sector’s survival.

It’s a small investment to remove some of the pressure on Australian families, and our youngest children, at this very challenging time.The Conversation

Sarah Pilcher, Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University and Kate Noble, Education Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why children and teens with symptoms should get a COVID-19 test, even if you think it’s ‘just a cough’

Christopher Blyth, University of Western Australia

A Victorian teenager holidaying on the NSW South Coast has been diagnosed with COVID-19, NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant said on Wednesday.

The revelation follows reports senior students at Al-Taqwa College in Melbourne are now considered the main source of Victoria’s second-biggest COVID-19 cluster.

These cases serve as a reminder that although children and teens are considered less likely than adults to catch and spread COVID-19, everyone with symptoms should get a test — including children and teens.

Children, teens and COVID-19 risk: what we know so far

In my field, paediatric infectious disease, new research is emerging all the time about how SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) affects children and teens. In short, the evidence so far says:

  • children and teens can contract and spread the disease — but compared to adults, several studies suggest that they are less likely to.

  • children and teens are much less likely to get severely unwell, be hospitalised or die compared to adults and older people.

  • tragically, children and babies overseas have died of COVID-19, but compared with adults, this is much less common. Thankfully, it has not yet occurred in Australia.

The current thinking is that for most of Australia, the benefit of keeping schools open outweighs the risk. (In metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire, however, school holidays have been extended for all students except for those in year 11 and 12 or specialist schools.)

In Australia, the youngest COVID-19 death has been a person in their 40s. Less than 7% of all cases in Australia have so far have been recorded in children and teenagers. This proportion may rise, depending on the demographics in areas where community transmission is occurring.

What about older teens?

The risk of becoming unwell with COVID-19 increases with age. We know older teens are very different to young teens, both in growth and development but also in their activities – many of these activities put older teens at greater risk.

As Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has said

They are older kids, they tend to have more transmission that is akin to adults if they’re not doing the physical distancing appropriately.

And if teens do develop COVID-19, the disease can move incredibly quickly from person to person and may soon reach populations with much greater risk, such as older people.

That’s why the very best strategy we have is to get tested.

Most children or teens with COVID-19, and indeed most people, will experience a mild illness that improves by itself. However, a small proportion of the community will become severely unwell. I’d be encouraging parents to remember that having a test is not just about the child; it’s about the community, children, parents and grandparents.

Most children or teens, and indeed most people, who get COVID-19 will experience a mild illness that improves by itself.

Younger kids and the constant runny nose or cough

As we head into winter time, we’re starting see more children and adults with common cough and cold viruses. For many parents of younger children, runny noses and coughs are a constant part of life during this time.

To these parents I would say: if it is a new cough, a new fever or sore throat, consider getting the child tested. This is particularly important for those living in places where community transmission is occurring, such as Victoria.

Some children, particularly through winter, will have an ongoing sniffle or cough and one infection will roll into the next. In this situation, the thing to watch for is a worsening of a fever or cough. If this happens, do not hesitate to get tested.

The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Testing is a key strategy

To sum it up, testing is one of the key strategies to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Australia. One needs only look to Victoria to see what can happen when flare-ups occur. Although some of the public health interventions may appear draconian, we have to make sure people who are infectious are separated from those who are susceptible.

If your child is showing symptoms, you might be tempted to think “it’s just a cough” — and most of the time it will be just a cough. It’s not that we think every child with a cough has got coronavirus, but early detection — along with other measures such as physical distancing, staying home if unwell and hand hygiene — is absolutely crucial in our response.The Conversation

Christopher Blyth, Paediatrician, Infectious Diseases Physician and Clinical Microbiologist, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Yes, we’ve seen schools close. But the evidence still shows kids are unlikely to catch or spread coronavirus

Allen Cheng, Monash University

Brunswick East Primary School and Keilor Views Primary School in Melbourne have temporarily shut down after children from both schools tested positive to COVID-19, while a confirmed case in a year 2 student led to the closure of Sydney’s Lane Cove West Public School. A childcare centre in the Melbourne suburb of Essendon has also closed for cleaning after a child tested positive.

These cases, and others in young children, follow a handful of positive cases in teenage students in Sydney and Melbourne and may be prompting some to wonder whether it’s time to rethink reopening schools after lockdown.

The short answer is: no. The research still suggests that while children can be infected with COVID-19, it is uncommon. They also don’t seem to pass the disease on as efficiently as adults do, and cases of child-to-child infection are uncommon. And when children do get infected, they don’t seem to get very sick.

The temporary closure of schools (and at least one childcare centre) is evidence the system is working as it should — cases are being identified, contact tracing and deep cleans are underway and every effort is made to limit the spread.

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What we know about children and coronavirus

We still don’t know exactly why COVID-19 is much more common in adults than children. The COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) infects people by attaching itself to a receptor called the ACE2 enzyme, and differences in this receptor in children may be one reason why children are less susceptible.

A lot of the thinking around schools and COVID-19 in Australia is based on follow up of school cases by the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS). It was released in April but still reflects what is currently known about the virus and how it interacts with children and school settings.

The report found:

In NSW, from March to mid-April 2020, 18 individuals (9 students and 9 staff) from 15 schools were confirmed as COVID-19 cases; all of these individuals had an opportunity to transmit the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) to others in their schools.

  • 735 students and 128 staff were close contacts of these initial 18 cases
  • no teacher or staff member contracted COVID-19 from any of the initial school cases
  • one child from a primary school and one child from a high school may have contracted COVID-19 from the initial cases at their schools.

Data from the Netherlands also found “children play a minor role in the spread of the novel coronavirus”.

In younger children, a rare but severe complication called PIMS-TS has been described. However, these cases have occurred in areas where there is extremely high transmission of COVID-19 in the community.

A bigger concern around schools is how adults congregate. Schools now have some version of physical distancing in the staff room and on school grounds to limit the risk of transmission between adults. Parents are asked not to enter school grounds or congregate in close quarters at the school gate, although the fact that this is outdoors and not a long period of contact also helps reduce the risk.

What about COVID-19 and high school students?

There have been several reports of cases in high schools both in Australia and abroad.

Older children in high school start to have similar risk to adults, although the risk of complications is still substantially lower than in the elderly. Importantly, kids in this age group are more able to physically distance and adhere to personal hygiene measures than primary school-aged kids.

At least one instance of a high school outbreak in Auckland was related to an event outside the classroom at which many adults were present. So it was less about transmission in the classroom and more related to a particular event.

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The system is working

It’s important that schools remain open. But precautions are still required: teaching children to maintain personal hygiene, enhanced cleaning, and making sure adults (teachers and parents) are appropriately distanced from each other.

The latest school cases are not unexpected, and don’t mean that school closures across the board are required. They show the system is working as it should — we are spotting cases early and intervening quickly to limit the spread.

When we do find COVID-19 cases in children, we don’t usually find cases of child-to-child transmission. But of course, we still need to go through the process of managing each case as it arises.

If there are ongoing cases in the community, it is likely that cases will continue to occur in students or teachers, and schools will need to have contingency plans for this.

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Parents need to make sure their children are well before sending them to school, and be prepared to get them tested and to keep them at home if they show any sign of illness. And of course, hammer home the message about hand washing.

Hand washing and physical distancing remain the very best things we can do to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading.The Conversation

Allen Cheng, Professor in Infectious Diseases Epidemiology, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus or just a common cold? What to do when your child gets sick this winter


Nicholas Wood, University of Sydney and Philip Britton, University of Sydney

It’s Sunday night, around 8pm, when your ten-year-old tells you she has a sore throat. She doesn’t have any other symptoms, and feels OK. You tell her “let’s see how you feel in the morning” and she happily goes off to sleep.

But you’re left wondering what you’ll do if her throat is still sore the next day — or if she’s developed other symptoms by then. Should you get her swabbed for COVID-19?

Like most Australians, you haven’t recently travelled overseas or been in contact with anyone with COVID-19. And like most kids, your children often get coughs and colds during winter.

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COVID-19 symptoms in kids resemble other respiratory infections

Generally, in their first 12 years, children can experience up to four to eight respiratory tract infections, or “colds”, per year. This number is highest among the youngest children.

One-quarter of all GP visits in children under five in Australia are for respiratory tract infections.

A recent review showed COVID-19 symptoms in children were typical of most acute respiratory infections and included fever, cough, sore throat, sneezing, muscle aches and fatigue.

In general, COVID-19 in children is less severe than in adults.

In children, the symptoms of COVID-19 might appear like the symptoms of any cold or flu.

So how do I know if I should get my child tested?

If your child is unwell you can check their symptoms using healthdirect’s coronavirus symptom checker.

It will ask you questions based on what we know to be common symptoms of COVID-19, including whether you or the person you’re caring for have:

  • a fever of 37.5℃ or more; or

  • symptoms suggesting fever (such as night sweats or chills); or

  • an acute respiratory infection (for example, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat); or

  • loss of smell or taste.

Read more:
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It’s possible these could also be symptoms of a different respiratory infection. But if your child is displaying any of these symptoms, the current federal government guidelines recommend they stay at home and get tested.

You can also ask your GP if you’re not sure whether your child needs a test.

How likely is it my child will test positive to COVID-19?

Although Victoria is currently experiencing a spike, Australia has largely “flattened the curve”. In the past month there have been less than 40 new cases nationally each day.

Around the country, since the pandemic began, we’ve performed more than two million tests and identified 7,521 cases.

This means fewer than 0.5% of tests have been positive. And only a small proportion of confirmed cases have been in children.

So in our current situation it’s much more likely your child’s fever or runny nose is caused by one of the common respiratory viruses, such as rhinovirus, that we see each winter.

How sustainable is all this testing?

We’re now performing more tests each day than we were at the height of the pandemic in late March.

Australia’s high level of testing has undoubtedly played a significant role in our successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But we now must ask ourselves whether, with potentially diminishing returns, it’s sustainable to keep testing every child with a cold for the foreseeable future.

Let’s remember there are 4.7 million children in Australia under 15 and each of them, particularly the younger ones, are likely to get multiple respiratory infections each year.

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One of the risks of a continued emphasis on COVID-19 testing is that when a child returns a negative result, the parent thinks “all good, my child doesn’t have coronavirus, they can go back to school”.

This risks spreading non-COVID-19 viruses to others, who then develop respiratory symptoms and need to be tested. Many of these viruses spread easily among children, especially where they’re in close contact, such as in childcare centres.

This may lead to an upward spiral of respiratory infections, particularly during winter when colds and the flu are traditional foes.

Viral infections can spread easily among children.

Keep sick kids at home

While testing is important, physical distancing and hygiene measures have been instrumental in flattening the curve.

And as a bonus, these measures may have led to decreased incidence of other viral infections in the community.

In our hospital in Sydney, we’ve seen fewer hospitalisations for respiratory syncytial virus this year, a common cause of infant hospitalisations.

Nationally, in the first five months of 2020 there were 20,569 influenza notifications, compared to more than 74,000 at the same point last year.

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Although restrictions are easing, Australians should continue to focus on physical distancing and hygiene throughout winter.

We need to see this pandemic as an opportunity to shift to a new normal: that is, staying at home when you’re sick, and keeping your child at home if they’re unwell (until their symptoms resolve).

We know it’s not always practical, but hopefully this “new normal” will see more flexibility from employers in these circumstances.

Finally, yes, follow public health advice around getting tested for COVID-19. But let’s not view this as the only thing that matters.The Conversation

Nicholas Wood, Associate Professor, Discipline of Childhood and Adolescent Health, University of Sydney and Philip Britton, Senior lecturer, Child and Adolescent Health, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.