[Weekender] Coronavirus takes silent toll on children

By Kim Arin

Published : May 9, 2020 - 16:01
Updated : May 10, 2020 - 10:13

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Children have their own set of problems and distresses amid the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak, experts say, as they are forced to forgo childhood necessities such as outdoor fun and play -- and, in some cases, are left unprotected from abuse and other fears.

Battling COVID-19, the contagious respiratory illness caused by the new virus, happens in isolation for adults and kids alike, and the process is prone to place emotional strain on child patients, said pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Choi Eun-hwa of Seoul National University Hospital.

Speaking at a Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention briefing last week, Choi said how to provide mental health support for children going through the treatment in isolation was a crucial issue that has yet to be addressed.

“We have to look into how the experience is affecting the children’s mental well-being, and help them cope,” she said.

Another pediatric infectious disease expert, Dr. Eun Byung-wook of Nowon Eulji University Hospital in northern Seoul, said child patients faced difficulties adjusting to certain aspects of COVID-19 care.

Some children were averse to the negative pressure unit -- where virus patients typically stay -- which they described as making “weird noises,” for instance, he said.

“Guardians have to wear protective equipment to tend to the infected children. That can be hard for the younger children to get used to, too.”

One silver lining is that COVID-19 symptoms tend to be milder in pediatric cases, he added.

The national disease control agency revised the academic calendar, postponing the start of the spring semester from March to mid-May to safeguard pupils from the virus as well as to slow its spread.

But the virus-induced school closures exposed more vulnerable children to a different kind of threat at home.

For some kids, distancing means being trapped at home with their abusers.

Parents make up the majority of child abuse perpetrators -- nearly 80 percent -- according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s 2018 data.

National Police Agency statistics show that in February and March, when the coronavirus was most rampant here, the number of child abuse reports totaled 1,806 -- a slight rise of 2.9 percent from the same time last year. The number fell by 17 percent in April to 999.

This drop in reporting was troubling, according to child protection groups.

A Save the Children official said the figure may be masking the actual incidence rate of child abuse while the virus is keeping children out of classrooms.

“Teachers are often the first to notice and alert authorities to instances or suspected instances of child abuse,” a representative of the Korean chapter of the children’s charity said. “With home isolation, abused or otherwise exploited children are out of sight and likely to have gone unnoticed.”

Under Korean law, faculty and staff at schools and day care centers are obliged to report all forms of endangerment of minors, and failing to fulfill that obligation constitutes a crime.

Oh Joon, the board chair of Save the Children Korea, said verbal abuse against children was among the unintended consequences of lockdown fatigue.

“Not all child abuse is intentional. Oftentimes emotional abuse of children occurs without the parent or the guardian’s knowledge,” he said.

Psychologist Yook Sung-pil, who offers counseling services free of charge as part of a government program, said about 10 percent of his consultees reported suffering from parenting stress.

“Parents, predominantly mothers, stuck with child care responsibilities without help, say they’re overwhelmed, and sometimes the exhaustion manifests as more scolding and punishment,” he said.

Social welfare studies professor Chung Ick-joong of Ewha Womans University in Seoul found in preliminary research that neglect was the most common form of child abuse during the coronavirus crisis.

“Parents who are informally employed cannot take leave or have the option to telecommute, and are forced to leave children unattended,” he said. “Working from home is a luxury granted mostly to people with stable jobs.”

Chung said the government was not proactive enough about measuring and monitoring child maltreatment.

“Households with repeat offenders of child abuse should warrant random home visits from officials, especially in times like this when we know there’s going to be an oversight. But unfortunately, we have not been doing that enough,” he said.

With the curve flattened and distancing relaxed, kids are set to return to school starting next week.

But as the risk of infection still exists, school is not going to be the same.

Children will have to keep apart from their classmates and distancing measures will have to continue onto the playground.

“Play is a vital part of the learning process. In fact, a lot of learning at school occurs through mixing with peers,” said educational psychology expert Suh Young-sook of the Korean Psychological Association.

How much of a challenge the limited interaction might pose in education is something teachers in the field will have to figure out, she said.

Pediatric psychiatrist Dr. Kim Hyo-won of Seoul Asan Medical Center said the younger children in nurseries and preschools struggled with reduced playtime with friends and opportunities for outings more than with fear of the disease.

“For those kids, longing to be with other kids and play out in the open loom larger than the virus itself,” she said.

Still, the belief that children cannot cope well with the restrictions could be adult-centric thinking, Suh pointed out.

“Children are extremely competent in turning unlikely situations into play and discovering fun where it’s scant. It’s their magic power,” she said.

Developmental psychologist Choi Yoon-kyung of Korea Institute of Child Care and Education said if the disease outbreak were to persist as many health experts project, children growing up amid the outbreak could be grouped as a new generation cohort.

Although spending childhood in coronavirus times can seem like deprivation of fun, Choi said she did not think the impact of the outbreak on children will be all negative.

For one thing, they are more mentally agile than adults in adapting to the fast approaching changes brought on by the virus.

“Children are capable of adapting much faster to online bonding -- said to become the new norm -- than grownups, for example,” she said.

“In the end, I’m not too worried about how children will turn out at the end of this long tunnel.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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