Authorities urged to consult children about COVID-19 and public health measures that affect them

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, and a human rights expert says governments should start considering children’s best interests and listening to their views when it comes to public health policies.

Dr Noam Peleg, a law lecturer at the University of New South Wales, specialises in children’s rights. He doesn’t believe children’s rights were adequately considered – or in some cases considered at all – when Australian governments implemented COVID-19 measures.

Lockdowns, state border closures, vaccines, remote learning and school-based COVID-19 measures – all had an affect on children’s lives Peleg says.

“I don’t think there was one child that was unaffected by these policies. Some were more affected than others.”

Some young people were subject to harsher policing efforts, he says. For example, data from Victoria and NSW shows Indigenous children, vulnerable young people and others from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were disproportionately fined for breaching lockdown orders or COVID-19 rules.

He says, even though COVID-19 policies affected children disproportionately, their rights, welfare and perspectives weren’t adequately taken into account. Doing so is a requirement of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Australia ratified in 1990, he says.

“Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, they have the right to participate in decisions concerning their lives. It’s the duty of states to make that right a reality, and to create the mechanisms and the processes.” 

“Some would argue the main objective of those policies was to protect their life and their health. And I accept that argument. But one cannot do that, genuinely cannot do that, if they don’t see children as valuable human beings who deserve to be heard, and have their rights considered as part of this process,” Peleg says.

In recent weeks, Cosmos has reported on the effectiveness of COVID-19 measures in schools in Victoria and other states, as well as the lack of systematic data collected on the effects of masks on classroom learning.

Read more Cosmos coverage on COVID-19 schools measures:

An independent review into Australia’s response to COVID-19 led by Peter Shergold found children and their parents and carers were among those who bore the brunt of the pandemic.

The review found COVID-19 policies “failed to get the balance right between protecting health and imposing long-term costs on education, mental health, the economy and workforce outcomes.”

“While health advice was core in the decision-making process throughout the pandemic, paediatricians were not routinely included as key health experts in many jurisdictions. Their opportunity to advocate for the health of children and young people was diminished. The indirect impacts of COVID-19 on childhood development, mental health and education were given too little weighting. All children, particularly those facing additional adversity, will likely feel the impacts of COVID-19 well into the future,” the report says. 

The review argued the voices of young people should be considered when health decisions and policies affect them.

In early 2022, Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner, Anne Hollonds surveyed 4,559 children and 2,796 parents or carers about the impacts and unique challenges of the pandemic, mental health and actions that could support them.

The survey showed 41% of children reported a negative impact on their wellbeing due to the pandemic. Around one in five said they felt more down, scared or worried than they used to.

Peleg says while adults have the luxury of participating in political decision making processes, through elections and other mechanisms, children don’t have those same opportunities.

He argues, as the pandemic isn’t over, governments can start now by including children’s views and their best interests in decision making.

For instance he says, governments should engage children in designing COVID-19 treatment and management protocols, vaccines for children, or school-based measures like masks.

“Children’s experiences, for example of wearing masks day-in, day-out in at school is completely different than the experience the adults might have. And they were not consulted about that,” Peleg says.

He says other countries made stronger efforts to consider the rights and views of children in managing COVID-19.

“Government’s, especially in Scandinavia, [and] to some extent, the Welsh Government, the New Zealand government did engage in exercise of listening to children, having conversations with children, or with some representative bodies of children.” 

Peleg says when you engage children in decisions which affect them: “they have agency over their own life, they know much more, and they understand much more about how they’re affected by policies, what can work, what can’t work for them, compared to adults.”

The Government of Wales conducted more than 40 children’s rights impacts assessments throughout the pandemic, covering everything from public health regulations, to remote learning arrangements and the return to face-to-face learning.

Peleg says, listening to children’s experiences, suggestions and solutions can improve the ways in which we are handling with COVID. now and into the future.

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