One Question Quiz
Photo: Getty Image, additional design by Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Image, additional design by Tina Tiller

OPINIONSocietyJanuary 19, 2022

How Covid vaccines upend our assumptions about protecting kids

Photo: Getty Image, additional design by Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Image, additional design by Tina Tiller

Children shouldn’t be asked to protect the adults in their lives, goes the common argument. But why not?

The tweet was indignant, as commentary about children and Covid-19 tends to be. We, as a society, tend to get sensitive about kids, when we’re not ignoring them. And, as the child vaccination effort gets underway in New Zealand and parents are making decisions about whether and when to get their 5-11 year olds vaccinated, we’re finally talking about kids. So it’s time for us to start talking about how we’re talking about kids.

“Children should never ever be asked or told to do anything to protect anyone older than them.”

The tweet’s point was one I’ve seen a lot: children should be protected by adults, not the other way around. Children are at less risk of severe Covid-19 infection and so, the logic goes, the only reason to vaccinate them would be to protect adults. And children protecting adults is backwards, against the natural order of things, morally wrong. This might be a compelling way of thinking until we dig deeper into how this thinking is cultural.

As an anthropologist of childhood and child health, I study how we as a society think about and treat children. This is because our ideas about who children are and who they should be – what’s known as our social constructions of childhood – guide how doctors care for children, how policy-makers consider children’s needs, and even how parents make decisions about their children’s health. In my research observing sore throat clinics operating for rheumatic fever prevention, for example, I saw how our assumptions that children are passive recipients of care meant that policymakers forgot to consider how children will actually seek, resist or refuse care according to their own agendas. In my current research on childhood asthma, I see how doctors and parents grapple with the contradiction between cultural ideologies of children as people who cannot and should not be responsible for their own health and the reality that children must manage their own asthma, at least some of the time. Who we think children are matters because our ideas turn into real health effects in children’s bodies.

Humans sometimes struggle to recognise our own cultural ideas and values. We take for granted our own norms and attitudes, like the fish that doesn’t know it’s in water until it jumps into the air. Our ideas seem obvious, natural, until we visit another place or time and realise things like gender and sexuality and yes, childhood, are cultural, socially constructed. But we rarely talk about those ideas about childhood, so taken for granted they seem natural, that underlie our decision-making.

Our ideas about protecting children are culturally constructed, and relatively recent (Photo: Getty Images.)

So how are we thinking about children when it comes to vaccines?

I’ll leave it to the epidemiologists to explain in clinical terms why, even if we’re only looking at children as individual biological organisms, the very small risks of the vaccine to children aged 5-11 are still vastly outweighed by the risks of Covid-19 infection, including long Covid, paediatric multi-system inflammatory disorder, and a recent CDC report of elevated diabetes risk for children after Covid-19 infection. And, my paediatrician colleagues remind me, there are the indirect effects of Covid-19 infection, like missing school and social events, especially when kids have missed out on so much already.

But even if it weren’t true that individual children biologically benefit from the vaccine’s protections – is it bad to think that children might protect adults?

The idea that children should be protected isn’t bad per se. But it is culturally specific – like the fish jumping into the air, we can jump to other places and times and see that this is a fairly new and quite western idea, emerging around the 20th century and really taking off in the 80s and 90s “stranger danger” era. The problem is that this idea – that children should be protected – sounds so good that it prevents us from deeper critical thinking about what really protects children, who or what children should be protected from, and how, and with what consequences. The stranger danger moral panic has curbed the freedoms of generations of children who are now cloistered in child-friendly, supervised spaces, driven everywhere, excluded from public life, and able to build relationships with few adults who could be safe alternatives from whom to seek help. Never mind that the real danger to children is not from strangers at all – stranger kidnappings are exceptionally rare – but from abuse by relatives in their own home. Sometimes, in our enthusiasm to protect children, we inadvertently leave them more vulnerable.

To be sure, children are generally more vulnerable than adults, and so we should look out for them. But, when we think of them only as vulnerable, we overlook how we make them vulnerable. Often in the name of protection, we exclude them from public life, curtail their mobility, gatekeep their access to people and places and resources, and silence their voices. Because they’re vulnerable, we’ve left them the last group without the vaccine’s protection.

And, when we think only that children should always be protected and not protectors, we overlook the many ways that children can, do, and often want to protect the adults they care for. Because children know that when the adults they depend on for security and survival are protected, children are safer too. We are already asking children to protect us when we ask them to stay home, school remotely, stay out of shops, and wear masks. Children are already trying to protect us when they remind us to scan the QR codes, help us find our mask, or give us a cuddle after our vaccination.

Thinking more deeply about our ideas about risk also points to another way we’ve been imagining children – as isolated bodies whose only risk from Covid-19 is the biological effects of viral infection. This narrow view of who children are means we can mistakenly think that if children aren’t at risk of severe illness or death from Covid-19 then vaccination cannot benefit them.

Another way to think about children, though, is as members of families, communities, and our own society; as people whose wellbeing is interdependently connected to others; as people who both contribute to and benefit from healthy families and communities. Children need adults to be alive and healthy to care for them, to be able to go to work to support them, to love and be loved by them. Children need their teachers to be alive and health to help them learn. They need hospitals that have doctors and nurses and beds available for when they get injured or sick from something else. They need a society that is not circulating a virus that could mutate towards vaccine resistance or greater severity for children. This pandemic has demonstrated that as much as New Zealand neoliberal politics has pushed a construction of our society as an accumulation of individuals, we are an interdependent collective, and our individual health and wellbeing is inextricably tied to the health of our neighbour. And some of our neighbours are children.

It’s OK to acknowledge that we all protect each other.

Keep going!