(Image: AAP/Michael Dodge)

Note: this article discusses suicide.

The growing evidence of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines has caused an unexpected problem for those wishing to keep Australians locked up for the foreseeable future: once vaccinated, people tend to become less fearful of the virus. To combat this, Australia’s COVID-zero gang recently made one final pivot: saving the kids.

The concerns around children and COVID isn’t completely without foundation. Unlike previous strains, Delta does appear to infect children at a materially higher rate. However, the good news is that nearly all those infections appear to be mild or asymptomatic (in places like the United States and United Kingdom, a large number of infections are picked up through regular “at home” tests).

The UK, which provides the most detailed public data set reported six deaths in children under 15 since schools reopened in March. Half its paediatric deaths have been “in individuals with an underlying complex disability with high healthcare needs, such as tube feeding or assistance with breathing”. 

In total, between March 2020 and February 2021, 3105 children died in the UK, but only 25 died with COVID.

Australian paediatric infectious disease expert Professor Fiona Russell tweeted that the UK data indicated “no increase in COVID-19 hospitalisations in children [and] no evidence of increased severity of Delta in children [and] ICU cases & deaths stabilising”.

Given the relative population in Australia, easing restrictions at 80% adult vaccination levels may lead to one or possibly two tragic paediatric deaths. While it is challenging to justify a policy setting that results in the death of a child, maintaining lockdowns is also arguably even more lethal. Eight teenage girls died by suicide in the first half of 2021, up from only one in 2020 and three 2019.

Then there are the longer-term educational impacts of children not attending school. A UK peer-reviewed paper found that “children have least to gain and most to lose from school closures. This pandemic has seen an unprecedented intergenerational transfer of harm and costs from elderly socioeconomically privileged people to disadvantaged children” while “children with special educational needs or who are already disadvantaged are at increased risk of harm”.

The effect of school closures in Australia is significant, most notably in Victoria where children have spent almost a year outside the classroom since March 2020. It is not only learning that is affected. School provides kids with freedom of expression, physical fitness and mental health support. And in tragic cases, it provides refuge from domestic violence and abuse.

It is illustrative that schools in the UK returned safely in March, when only 1.3% of the population had been vaccinated. In Victoria, where schools are only now starting to reopen, more than 52% of all people have been fully vaccinated. In Sydney, schools will open with nearly 70% of the population vaccinated.

More encouragingly, data released by the Office of National Statistics in the UK indicates that the concern surrounding paediatric “long COVID-19” also appears unfounded. A study of 26,000 participants found only 3.2% of children aged between two and 11 reported any symptoms 12 to 16 weeks after infection. Interestingly, 3.6% of the control group (kids aged two to 11 who never contracted COVID) suffered symptoms, a higher rate than those of children who had previously tested positive.

In the choice between the lesser of two evils, the potential for a tiny number of COVID-related deaths is dwarfed by the increase in suicide and the potential for long-term harms being magnified by school closures.

The data indicates that Victorian and NSW governments should open the schools right now. Our kids’ lives might just depend on it.

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636. In an emergency, call 000.