Illustration by Areeshah Qureshi

After being hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, the entire world came to a halt in March 2020, and no one expected things ever to be the same again. Social life as we knew it had changed forever, and the impacts of the lockdowns are still being felt. Two years later, we are still adjusting to the ‘new normal’.

While grown-ups grappled with the sudden change, babies and toddlers may not have been as affected by the virus itself, but certainly bore the brunt of the adverse situation the virus brought to the world. They only met one reality — social isolation.

Kids socialize at family events, in the neighborhood, in playgrounds and in school. But because of the pandemic, all of this activity ceased. Their socialization was constrained within their immediate family, while bigger crowds and social gatherings became an alien concept. Now, as the world emerges from lockdowns, little children are having difficulty adjusting to their ‘new normal’ which, apart from social gatherings and outings, entails going to school each day.

These children, who are around three years of age (give or take a few months), belong to what is being dubbed as the ‘Covid Generation’. The generation was born in or to the pandemic, and their crucial developmental years were spent indoors with limited socialization.

School culture is a brand new experience for children born during the Covid-19 pandemic

These kids stayed home instead of beginning their early care and education program a year or two earlier. This year, at the age of three, they stepped into an educational environment for the first time. And for them, their parents and teachers, an early care and education program is a brand new experience.

Dr Veerta Ali Ujan, a cardiac surgeon working at the Wazirabad Institute of Cardiology in Wazirabad, has noticed a post-pandemic behavioral change in her children, aged five and seven. They prefer to stay indoors, because that is all they did in the past two years. Her younger child missed out on vital time at preschool, which has hampered his social development.

Aatika Abbasi, 37, a Pakistani-Canadian who works with immigrants in Burlington, Ontario, survived a strict year-long lockdown. “My three-year-old daughter Haneen has stranger anxiety and group anxiety, which my older kid Hadi does not have, even though he is an introvert,” says Abbasi.

“Hadi is glad to resume school but Haneen puts up a fight every morning. She has a hard time saying goodbye to me and is not comfortable in proximity with other children of her age.”

Abbasi attended her cousin’s wedding a couple of days after arriving in Pakistan, but this was too chaotic for Haneen. “She had never seen so many people together and it freaked her out,” says Abbasi.

During the pandemic, for a little over two years, Abbasi’s children — like many others — only had close family to interact with. As a result, the children show clinginess and separation anxiety when going to school even for a few hours.

On the other side of the globe, Saira Shoaib, 28, a housewife and mother from Lahore, has three children who display a similar behavioral pattern. “While my six-year-old daughter Saleha fell back into the school post-lockdown routine fairly easily, my four-year-old daughter Soha did not. Saleha had no problems interacting with others, but Soha prefers solitary play and alone time.”

Scientists all over the world were aware that the pandemic would not just affect children’s behavior but perhaps also shape it. A study at Brown University (a private Ivy League research university in Rhode Island) saw that there was a development dip in toddlers’ cognitive skills. The toddlers tested at the lab before the pandemic had scored higher in cognitive tests than the children tested in 2020 and 2021. This meant that skills such as language, and motor-skills such as walking and standing, had all been negatively affected in toddlers, because of limited socialization in lockdowns, among other things.

Toddlers displaying separation anxiety for their parents make it a lot harder for teachers to get them settled in preschool. They are harder to discipline and control. The transition from being confined to lockdown and then resuming school in between Covid waves with physical distancing and masks, is difficult for little ones and impacts their social skills as well as learning patterns.

“Children who start playschool before kindergarten become familiar with the basics, such as shapes, letters, colours, drawing lines and doodling with crayons and participating with other children in various learning activities,” says Nilofer Khan, a teacher at Sunrise Montessori, Karachi. “But this batch has started later than normal, so it is not only difficult for them to learn lots of new stuff, but also for the teachers to educate, discipline and control kids not used to the school environment.”

Nadia Wali, a 33-year-old beautician from Karachi, had trouble with both her sons when regular school began post-lockdowns. “I get complaints every day from my three-year-old son Abdullah’s playschool,” says Wali. “He is like a monkey on the loose and gives the teacher a hard time.

“First, there is resistance to go to school and then, what appears to be, revenge for being there. My five-year-old son Junaid would cry in class every time school would resume after a period of lockdown. He went to school on alternate days, as the class was split into two groups. In class, the kids would sit at a distance from each other and wore masks. They were confused and unhappy.

“Without face-to-face contact, they didn’t recognize each other for the longest time, had little or no social interaction and there were no sports or playground activities in school. It was difficult for Junaid to build a happy connection to school and he had to be pushed and cajoled to go to school every day.”

A Japanese study observes that the anxiety-related effects seen in these children are similar to those seen in children who witnessed calamities such as the ‘Great East Japan Earthquake’, tsunami and radiation disaster (2011). Although children are fast at adapting to changes, they still need some time and space. Expecting toddlers to quickly adapt to what was once normal for the world is unfair.

As the pandemic seems to be at an ebb, with a predictable routine, regular timing for activities and a bunch of children to interact with daily, Abdullah and others like him are slowly learning social skills that they previously missed out on.

Hopefully the Covid Generation will be able to retain the ‘new normal’ as just plain normal for them.

The writer is a full-time journalist based in Stockholm. she tweets @rameezay

Published in Dawn, EOS. May 29th, 2022

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