Several months ago I wrote an article about how not to write about COVID-19 and children. In that article, I argued that writers have an obligation to inform their readers of several core facts. While the vast majority of children who contract COVID-19 will be just fine, in the USA, 686 children have died, tens of thousands have been hospitalized, 5,217 children have been diagnosed with MIS-C, and a not insignificant number will suffer from long-COVID. I further argued that writers who only note that COVID-19 is more dangerous for elderly people or that more children die from other causes, are doing their readers a disservice by omitting these core facts. Acknowledging these core facts does not mean that policy positions automatically follow, though informed policy discussions require they be recognized.
Unfortunately, several journalists seem to have used my article not was a warning, but rather as an instruction manual. For example, David Leonhardt at The New York Times wrote an article titled “COVID-19 and Age” in which he argued that COVID-19 can’t be that bad for children as long as it remains worse for their grandparents. As he put it, “An unvaccinated child is at less risk of serious Covid illness than a vaccinated 70-year-old.” While this is true, his article contained zero of the core facts about how COVID-19 has harmed children.
This was not Mr. Leonhardt’s first foray into minimizing COVID-19’s impact on children. He incorrectly argued that the flu is as dangerous to children as COVID-19, neglecting to note that COVID-19 is much more contagious than the flu. As such, in a year when COVID-19 killed hundreds of American children, the flu killed just one child. He further noted that more children die in car crashes and drownings than from the virus. While it can be useful to contextualize COVID-19 this way, the dangers of the virus to children are independent of how it affects elderly people or how many children die from other causes. COVID-19 wouldn’t be worse for children if elderly people were spared of if car crashes and drownings were eliminated. Moreover, we generally go to great lengths to try to keep children from dying preventable deaths, and except for guns, this is usually not a source of controversy. There are traffic laws, seat belts, swim lessons, life preservers, and fences around pools. We all agree these are good things. For COVID-19, there are masks and a vaccine. Sadly, we don’t all agree these are good things, and so teenagers who were eligible to be vaccinated have died this summer after the vaccine was available to them. While Mr. Leonhardt’s most recent article thankfully advocated vaccinating children (though he called it a “close call”), overall it was a classic in the sad genre of articles that mislead readers through gross omissions of basic facts and the liberal use of essentially irrelevant comparisons.
However, even if Mr. Leonhardt decides to include some core facts in a future column, comparing pediatric deaths to those of their grandparents is still problematic. The reason for this is so glaringly obvious I never thought to mention it previously: unlike 70-year-olds, children who die of COVID-19 are robbed of their entire lives. As Dr. Ester Choo put it:
It’s odd to see comparisons between children and older adults, as if the health indicators and expectations are the same. We have fundamentally different frames for children’s health.
Indeed, pediatricians who have treated sick children this pandemic often have a different perspective than those who have experienced it from behind a computer screen. Responding to podcaster Joe Rogan who said “statistically speaking, there’s so few children that have died from COVID”, our own Dr. Clay Jones said,
He should be forced to watch a child die. Not read about it, or watch a news report showing the family grieving, but sit in the room with a child as they die. He can only prattle on like an ignorant asshole because he has no skin in this game. He should at least see it in person.
Since few of us will see a child die of COVID-19, thankfully, we’ll have to read about these children and remember they are more than just numbers on a CDC website. Kali Cook, who liked to play with worms, will never go to kindergarten. She was one of 200 American children who died before they turned 5. Ryland Daic, who loved to fish, will never graduate high school. Gigi Morse will never go to a prom. Kimora Lynum, who liked shopping for clothes, will never celebrate her college graduation. Week Day will never have her first kiss. Wyatt Gibson will never get married. Dykota Morgan, a basketball player, will never hold her own child. Ethan Govan will never get the satisfaction of earning his first paycheck. Skylar Herbert, who wanted to be a pediatric dentist, will never work at all. Maybe Fabiana Zoppelli was destined to be a brilliant scientist. Teresa Sperry loved to sing. Maybe she would have been a star. It’s possible that Landon Woodson or Azorean Tatum would have made it to the NFL.
We’ll never know what life had in store for these children. They were robbed of all of it. It doesn’t matter that their grandparents were statistically more likely to die. Writers who minimize these tragedies by only reporting that COVID-19 is more dangerous for elderly people are out to advance a narrative, not inform their readers. Their future work should be read with this in mind.