Young person looking out a window. Image credit: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

As we approach the one-year mark of navigating a pandemic, I feel Canadian adults owe you children an apology. You see, we didn’t see this coming. Well, that’s not entirely true. A lot of us saw this coming. In fact, we’ve had several recent public health emergencies to learn from: SARS, H1N1, MERS. We even had a pandemic early warning system up and running — the Global Public Health Intelligence Network — and then in some cruel twist of fate, stopped funding it a year before COVID-19 reared up.  

I think we became a bit confused about what all the emergency planning was for; got distracted by burgeoning mandates and political posturing. There has long been talk of public-health funding cuts and hospital wait times and that sidetracked us from more critical matters.

As a result, we’ve done some pretty unthinkable things over the past year. And a large number of these were at your expense. We closed your schools and places of worship. We cancelled your sports teams and drama clubs, drop-in centres and community programs. We banned you from seeing your friends or hugging your grandparents. We made you shelter inside, even when it wasn’t safe to do so. 

We’d like to apologize for that.

Our government threw a bit of money at helplines and virtual mental health courses, but by that point, it was too little, too late. You had already begun cutting yourself or violently lashing out. You were drinking more, smoking more, and reached out to Kids Help Phone in record numbers. You were already drawing into yourself, disengaging from healthy behaviours and meaningful relationships with many of you waitlisted for months before receiving any significant mental health supports. 

At the time, there was strong evidence pandemic measures would protect our most vulnerable. But isn’t that what you are? And in retrospect, the evidence wasn’t as reliable or straightforward as everyone touted it to be. Turns out if we had buckled down hard and early on long-term care homes, strengthened hospital capacity, and increased testing and contact tracing at places of common outbreaks, the results would have been far less severe.

So yeah, we’re sorry.

One group that doesn’t need to apologize is SickKids. You know SickKids? The world-renowned hospital that does nothing but study children’s health? Yeah, those guys. They concluded the best place for children is school and that social interactions should continue as best managed. The report was released in June. We finally read it three weeks ago.  

Other scholars and advocates have defended your interests but not nearly enough. You see, we never really asked you how you were doing during all of this. We just sat and watched while you became a shell of yourself, holding tight to the anxiety brought on by the avalanche of frightening media stories.

It wasn’t on purpose, mind you. Our current workforce has never had to navigate a pandemic on this scale before. It’s a wicked problem, to be sure. Decision-making during COVID-19 is a frenzied hornet’s nest of evolving evidence, political positioning, and muddled messages.

We’ve learned a lot since this began and I’d like to think we’re going to do better going forward.

We want nothing more than to see you smile and hear you laugh again. We want you to chase down a soccer ball, audition for the school musical, and skateboard with your friends. We’ll get back to those things, I’m sure of it.

But next time there’s a crisis, I hope we remember to ask how you’re doing. I hope we take the time to engage with you, ask what you need. I’d like to think we would employ a wholistic view of your health recognizing physical, emotional, and mental elements are all important. I’d like to think our approach would be different if we did.

But for what it’s worth, we’re sorry.

And, oh, sorry about climate change. We totally screwed that up for you as well.

Benjamin Rempel served in public health management for more than 15 years. He holds a master of public health and is on the executive of Health Promotion Ontario. 

Image credit: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash