COVID-19 has ground the world to a halt, both physically and metaphorically. Governments around the world, having rightly prioritised the physical wellbeing of its citizens and based on their capacity to take care of them have chosen to impose tough social distancing measures.
The economic impact of the widespread lockdown is well documented with a huge number of articles and conversations in print and social media. The mental wellbeing of adults and senior citizens is also being spoken about. This is all very good news for adults. However, leaving aside plans to deal with the raging pandemic effectively, do we acknowledge the mental impact of social isolation on our next generation or the ‘younglings’ in Jedi speak?
The other day I went to the park for a walk, of course keeping the minimum 2 metres distance from people in the same space. It was nice to see a handful of people doing exercises and a few others playing games. It was a great sight – a diverse and thankfully dispersed crowd, trying to go about their life on a warm and sunny afternoon, all the while following the ‘rules’.
Then out of nowhere, a cute baby came running towards me with a broad angel-like smile on her face. She appeared thrilled about being in a large open space with lots of people around and perhaps wished to interact with them. However, unlike my normal self, I tried to hide my sense of panic with a fake smile and frantically looked for her parents to stop her from reaching me. Given the new social distancing norms, my pre-conditioned human reaction of smiling back and interacting with her had to be suppressed. The baby’s parents, who were fortunately nearby, cried out asking her to stop and go back to them.
Her smile faded as the kid tottered back to them. I continued my walk, ruminating over the possible effect this kind of panic reaction, both from me and her parents, will have on her and the countless kids of her generation.
They are the new generation and the younger they are, the quieter their voice. While confronted with the regimented social behaviour, they have little option than to adapt to the changed realities in the post- COVID-19 environment.
Yes, these kids will have to fall in line in order to thrive under the present dispensation. But the important question is: will they know any different? It is exactly this characteristic that may make them one of the worst affected by this COVID-19 pandemic, unacknowledged.
We all agree that the current situation will not change in the near future. We will have these issues till we find a vaccine and may be even later. Meanwhile what are the kids being conditioned to act like? They are being asked to speak only virtually and refrain from any physical contact outside their immediate family? Like the little angel I met, will they not hear the fear in their parents’ voice when they move close to another human and imbibe the implication?
We now see this in the slightly older kids, who seem happy to interact with their friends virtually and do not seem to miss the physical connection at all. They not only study and play together online, but also do movie nights together by watching entertainment and interacting over video calls. They have adapted and do not WANT to go meet anyone physically, as it’s too much hard work apparently. As parents, we seem delighted to see them cope, but have we thought of the long-term impact.
On a sliding scale of the need to meet people physically and age, it is directly proportional with a sharp decrease in physical interaction as age decreases. This begs the question how much will the pandemic hasten this process? Going forward will this turn to zero with people seeking no physical interaction at all?
Touch signals safety and trust. Adults miss and cry for a hug now, while waiting for it to happen. Will the kids learn to suppress the natural desire to touch and condition themselves to avoid it altogether? Does this not have a long-term impact on the way humanity will behave post 2020?
There is a high probability that the next generations will see a dramatic decrease in physical proximity. The social norms on being tactile may change permanently. Should this not be studied urgently? Can we plan for it as part of the social distancing or physical distancing measures, as a few of us prefer to call it?
Maybe our children will shun all human contact in the near future and we will condone it, given the circumstance.
The worry about whether to greet with a hug, a handshake or a namaste may be the least of our concerns, when the next generation refuses all forms of touch itself.