link to article in Irish Independent

I had the great pleasure of seeing my niece and nephew this week. It was brief and through the car window, but lovely nonetheless.

As I watched them walk where I used to play as a child, I got a sudden jolt of pathos over the innocence of their childhood lost. They can’t see their friends or their beloved cousin – my daughter.

They can’t go to the shops without people treating them like lepers. They can’t go to school, kiss their grandparents or go to the playground.

According to Unicef, 99pc of children (2.34 billion) are affected by movement restrictions due to Covid-19.

Anxiety swept over me. How will it affect them long-term?

I thought about my childhood in the 1970s and ’80s and how lucky we were to ‘only’ have had disruptive measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox and pesky lice to contend with. We could play in public places with free abandon, unafraid of potentially being virus vectors.

But looking back on history, it is my childhood that was extraordinary, not theirs. Even in Western society, there has rarely been a time when a virus didn’t define a generation or at least impact it deeply.

My parents, who were children in the 1940s and ’50s, had the threat of polio. Known as infantile paralysis (it still exists in Asia and Africa, but not in Europe since 2002), it predominantly affects children under the age of five, causing difficulty breathing, vomiting, muscle stiffness and permanent paralysis.

A vaccine found in 1955 didn’t stop an epidemic in Cork in 1956, which saw swimming pools closed, soccer matches banned and the All-Ireland finals delayed.

“We were scared of ending up in iron lungs,” my mother said. I would be too.

Children entered these terrifying contraptions when they were unable to breathe – to compress and depress the chest, and simulate respiration.

It must have been nightmarish to be a parent during that time, but then they grew up during the Spanish flu. All of my grandparents were alive during the pandemic, which lasted from 1918 to 1920, and killed between 20 and 50 million people globally. It claimed 23,000 lives and infected 800,000 people in Ireland.

It didn’t kill children like polio did, but it wiped out healthy young adults, many of whom had survived the trenches, and children were terrified of being orphaned.

My granny, who was nine at the time, spoke of TB, which wiped out entire families. Before that time, coffin ships sailing to America in the decades after the Famine saw outbreaks of measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis, hitting its youngest passengers the hardest.

In the 1870s, death rates for steerage passengers showed that infants claimed the highest percentage of deaths.

How horrific. But you don’t even have to go back centuries – Ebola killed more than 11,000 people in 2014. Smallpox, which was only eradicated in the late 1970s, killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone and 500 million people in the last 100 years of its existence. As recently as 1967, there were 15 million cases.

I asked my mother about the Hong Kong Flu of 1968 and 1969, which killed a million people, and she couldn’t really remember it. Lots of other scary things happened in her childhood, and she didn’t let virus fear dominate her life. This gives me hope for my daughter’s generation.

Our parents and grandparents lived through it in their childhood and ended up fine. In fact, my mother is way less panicked than I am, as is my daughter.

The past is a great comforter. Firstly, it shows us that humanity survived a lot worse – like the Justinian (Bubonic) plague, which killed half the world’s population.

The world also survived without penicillin until 1928. The Spanish flu, which came after the most horrific of wars, ended in 1920, and then came the roaring ’20s, where cafĂ© culture blossomed and people were dancing the Charleston.

So perhaps, I needn’t fear for the kids. They will be alright.


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