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SocietyMay 30, 2022

Kids draw their pandemic memories

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How are children experiencing the pandemic, and what will they remember from the past two years? Julie Spray helped a group of kids make comics about Covid, to express the things that matter to them most.

Nine-year-old McKenzy* was there when her mum got her first Pfizer shot. Her mum had her eyes closed, so McKenzy comforted her. A couple months later McKenzy watched her older brother get his vaccine. She had the longest wait for hers. “I was the one who asked to get my vaccination,” McKenzy told me. “My mum was like, ‘are you sure you want to do it?’ And then I was like ‘yeah, because as long as I’m safe then that’s all that matters.’”

I learned all this when I talked to McKenzy over Zoom and together we drew a comic strip of her pandemic experience. She chose the topic “when I decided to take my vaccination shot” and directed me how to represent her story. At the time, she was still waiting for her second dose and also the results of a Covid test she’d taken the day before. “I really wanted to go back to school to play my game with all my friends,” she said. “Then I realised that none of my friends are at school.” Most of her class were either sick with Covid-19 or quarantining.

As a medical and childhood anthropologist, I was frustrated by how little I knew of children’s perspectives on the pandemic. Policymakers and the media mainly spoke of children as at risk – of infection, illness, educational deficits – or as risks, as disease vectors who endangered their grandparents. We weren’t hearing about what mattered to children. Politicians concerned with creating national unity thanked frontline workers, teachers and parents for keeping children safe, but never acknowledged the work and sacrifices children made to protect their communities. In our society, children are invisible, imagined as public-in-waiting and as vulnerable, passive recipients of adult action.

The Pandemic Generation study aimed to reveal a different view of lives only glimpsed in the background of Zoom meetings or in chalk drawings in locked-down neighbourhoods. I met with 26 Aucklanders aged seven to 11 between November 2021 and March 2022 to make comics about growing up in a pandemic.

The first thing I learned was that I had mistitled my study. Many children did not know or use the word “pandemic”. Many children had only vague memories of that first lockdown or did not remember a time before lockdowns at all. The pandemic was almost normal life.

By Blaze R (left) and Santa (right)

Children spoke of heavy impacts from the second lockdown starting August 2021, however. They drew comics about learning what you thought was going to happen tomorrow or next week – just isn’t.

At first, lockdown could be a welcome break from school, like school holidays except for the parts where children had to work from home. Children watched movies and played Lego and learned to bake.

Then, lockdown got hard. Loneliness and boredom set in. Children found themselves sad, or frustrated, or angry. One girl drew herself in jail. “It’s like your whole world is a house,” she said.

By Ananya (left) and Lola (right)

Children drew themselves alone: at an empty dining table, looking out a window, on their bed staring at the wall. “What would you say your overall memory or feeling is that stands out to you?” I asked 11-year-old Hudson.

“Hmm, depression,” said Hudson.

By Hudson (left), Katty (centre) and Charlie (right)

Online school was hard, many children said. Some children avoided asking for help when they saw a parent was stressed and busy.

For almost all kids, social isolation was a huge experience. They had to rely on parents to broker Zoom or outdoor visits with friends. Back at school, children missed being physically close to and hugging their friends.

By Lachie (left) and Sofia (right)

However, children cared for themselves and others. They looked after their mental health through imagination and play, writing stories, creating businesses, and building bottle rafts and blanket forts. They reminded their families about the health rules.

Lola (left) reminds her mum to scan the QR codes when shopping. James (right) dresses up as Ashley Bloomfield to deliver the day’s press conference to his family.

They created new ways of enacting public health measures. This is Saara’s “Germasword 2000.” She uses it to maintain a two-metre distance.

They gave emotional support and influenced others to stay protected.

By Fifi, age 10

While children’s needs were often central to how families organised pandemic life, their comics also tell of times of being excluded from our pandemic response.

By Kitten, age 7

Children dealt with masks and nose swabs designed for adult faces and noses and MIQ conditions that did not sufficiently meet their needs for food or physical activity.

By Lola, age 8

Children pieced together understandings of the pandemic from snippets of overheard news and press conferences and parents’ explanations because we made no consistent effort to include them in our communications. They watched case numbers, but without good information, they often overestimated their risk. Of the first time she got tested, McKenzy said, “I was scared I was going to get positive – like I thought everyone dies when they get Covid. So I thought I was going to die.”

While we congratulate ourselves for vaccinating 96% of our population, only 55% of Aotearoa’s children aged 5-11 have received a first dose. Almost one third of all Covid-19 cases have occurred in young people under 19. Children are bearing the brunt of our neglect.

The children’s comics show us just how much we miss when we forget they are members of the public, too. They challenge our assumptions: Who are the public in public health? Where does public health promotion happen? What can health promotion look like? And who can be public health promoters?

It’s time for us to take children seriously – not as afterthoughts, not as cute feel-good stories, not as members-of-the-public-in-waiting, but as full members of society. Our collective health depends on it.

*All names are pseudonyms to protect the privacy of children and their families. Most children chose their own “secret name”.

A note about the drawings: some were created by the children on their own, while others were drawn by the author, under the child’s direction.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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