By the time things get back to normal in India, our kids will have spent two years or more confined to their homes under the shadow of the pandemic. Forget about school, they wouldn’t even have seen the local playground or interacted with other children their age during this period. As parents, we have been passively waiting for the situation to change for the better, looking for cues from doctors, WHO, central and state government bulletins, while we keep busy with work from home, house cleaning, food, booze and online shopping without realising that two years in the life of a child or young adult is two of their formative years—having a disastrous, possibly irrevocable psychological and physical impact on them. After all, these are our children. We need to be the CEOs of our own families and train our children to become CEOs of their own lives.
Percentage wise, children contracting COVID-19 in the first and second waves isn’t much different, but absolute numbers have increased manifold in the second. Without getting into statistics, let us just say that when it’s our loved ones, it becomes personal. In any case, besides the disease itself—what with no vaccine tailored for them available just yet—children have been affected in a lot more ways than we are ready to acknowledge.
Covid leaves the affected in a situation similar to participants of La Ultra-The High, an ultra marathon I put together in Ladakh, where oxygen availability can be as low as half of that in the plains. Also at La Ultra, psychological layers peel off and participants claim they find their “true self”. People get knocked out in more ways than one, but what is important is that they need to learn to get back up. We need to help our children do the same in these tough conditions.
Shweta Puri, a psychologist in Delhi specialising in Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, has been dealing with psychological trauma from the pandemic in a lot of children and their parents. Here’s what she had to say:
As a mental health professional and a parent of adolescent twin boys, I see a spate of behavioural and emotional issues impacting young minds. To begin with, children embarking on their school journey in their formative years have only been exposed to screen time. The school is not only an edifice for imparting education, but is extremely important in shaping the personality of children, and this has been non-existent for the last 16 months.
Enhanced screen time only increases their dopamine levels and leads to hyperactivity and excess stimulation. Government and educational institutions have added to their anxiety, due to the lack of clarity on everything, from admissions to kindergarten to conduct of board examinations for school leavers and entrance exams to undergraduate courses for young adults.
The second wave has been extremely challenging for children, as the transmissibility of the Delta variant is high within households, often affecting both parents. Losing either or parents to the disease is traumatic, and will increase insecurity and instability in their lives.
A lot of effort will be needed in their rehabilitation in the near future. As a society, we’ll need to contribute collectively towards it.
As parents, we will be failing our children if we are unable to proactively improve the situation for them. None of us have any experience dealing with a pandemic, but then, as Michael Jordan once said, you will miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take. We need to start somewhere.
Child psychologist Nupur Dhingra Paiva, co-founder of Art of Sport and mother of 12 and 9 year olds, shares her Covid experience that we all should learn from.
Before the pandemic hit us, our children used to be involved in vigorous sports for about two hours, 3-4 times a week, apart from whatever they did at school. As soon as the lockdown was imposed last year, their moods plummeted and they became lethargic. As a child psychologist, I would attribute this to them adapting to the situation. Their only movement was from couch to bed and back. They were thriving on chips and ice cream. We were expecting things to return to normal soon, but by June 2020, we decided to take a proactive role. We started doing exercises at home. The kids were now moving, but they were still miserable, because there wasn’t enough socialising and exposure to the outdoors.
Later last year, when things started improving, my husband and their father, Richard, started to take them out to play once a day. They would run on the grass and do squat jumps and other exercises. Their mood picked up. As much as we are in the business of sports for children, we now realise firsthand how important physical activity was for them. Then, the second lockdown was announced earlier this year. We made sure that this time, we weren’t going into a shell. We carried on with indoor exercises, doing stair circuits, etc. The children still don’t enjoy it as much as the outdoors, but are definitely in a better mood throughout compared to the first lockdown. They are fitter and happier.
Did Nupur and Richard get lucky with their children, or is there any evidence that physical activity plays a role in the current situation?
A study conducted in the US in 2020 looked at 48,440 adult patients who tested Covid positive between January 1 and October 21. It looked into their physical activity levels over the last two years and found that people who were active for less than 10 minutes in a week, had more than double the risk of hospitalisation and death from Covid, compared to those who did exercises for more than 150 minutes a week, which is the optimal amount of physical activity recommended by most international guidelines. This isn’t a lot. It’s only 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week, and requires exercises or sports that raise your heart rate and make you a bit breathless.
Another recent study looked at other studies done between 1980 and 2020, and found that physically active people were 50 per cent more likely to have a higher antibody count after receiving vaccines, than somebody who wasn’t that active. It didn’t look at Covid or vaccines specifically developed for its treatment, as it was completed early into the pandemic, but the findings are relevant to our topic.
Disappointingly, far from removing restrictions to movement and encouraging physical activity, governments across the world haven’t been enthused by these findings one bit. On June 13, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that malls and restaurants will open as part of the government’s relaxation of lockdown norms, but not public parks. One wonders if this isn’t because maintenance of public parks cost the government money, whereas malls and restaurants generate revenue for it.
Meanwhile, schools have let go of physical exercise, yoga and dance teachers. In fact, one of the few schools that haven’t—the chain of Shiv Nadar schools—claims they make sure their students don’t ignore exercise and sports even when at home.
Gopal Karunakaran, the CEO of Shiv Nadar schools and executive director of Shiv Nadar University, had this to say:
We consider our 40-strong sports staff at the same level as other teaching staff in both status and salary. They have been using technology to build online curricula to get our students moving during lockdowns. Of course, the experience is limited by the constraints of indoor space and lack of interaction. We have 3-4 counsellors in each school, as mental health is crucial. The teams work together on physical and mental health, as one can’t be separated from the other.
Anju Wal, director and principal of Shiv Nadar School in Faridabad spoke passionately about the institution’s belief in sports.
We have a strong sports programme that is more of a philosophy and belief. We don’t separate academics from sports. There is a transference of skills to excel in life. Sports are ingrained in our pedagogy and we instil the belief not only in our students, but also in their parents and our teachers. During Covid lockdowns, our sports instructors shared videos of exercises, sports skills and rhythm with all students, so that their connection with a physically active campus life is not severed.
We need more schools like Shiv Nadar. Till then, parents need to fill in. After all, families are the primary institutions in our lives. Personally, since the beginning of the pandemic last March, my team and I have been putting together online exercise activities like Squats Uni-V-Arse, Run and Bee High Camp, Dandi March and PUSH, where we have got folks from over a hundred cities from over 20 countries together to exercise in tandem. Their ages have ranged from 5 years to 65. The sessions are free for frontline Covid “Warriors” and anyone else who sees money as a roadblock. What we have learnt is that parents and children need to do activities together, and these activities need to be fun.
Movement is the most basic animal instinct. There are studies showing that farm animals living in small confinements, unable to move, are not as happy as those who have bigger pens. In the Netflix series Connected, Mel Smith, a professor of machine vision, makes an interesting observation. “If the animal is in pain and is suffering, it is likely that it won’t be very productive from a purely commercial sense.” To extend the analogy, even from a performance angle, we need to get our kids moving for them to be happier, and produce better results in whatever they do.
When we began, we were unsure how engaging our online exercise sessions would be, but we were pleasantly surprised. After all, human beings are social animals, and our online sessions brought people from different backgrounds together. Participants connected so well that they would motivate each other on social media to get back on track, and appreciate each other’s achievements. It’s amazing how, instead of lofty goals, when the steps are smaller, all of us can carry on the path for a lot longer.
If you were to ask what a good exercise regime is, and when one should start, the answers are pretty obvious—the best exercise is the one you can do, the best time to start was yesterday, and the second best is now. So get on with it. Now. As a family. And keep miling and smiling.
Dr Rajat Chauhan is an MBBS specialising in sports-exercise medicine & race director of La Ultra - The High