Sara Austin

Sounding the Alarm

By Sara Austin

After four months of restrictions due to COVID-19, things seem to be opening up again: My husband can go to the barber, I can go to the salon, and we can even enjoy a sit-down meal at our favourite restaurant or go to a movie if we want to.

Our nine-year-old son, however, still has no safe place to play and learn.

This reality is difficult to explain to a child. It goes against everything he’s learned about fairness and equality. He doesn’t understand why we can go to the gym and enjoy safe recreation outside of our home, while he has nowhere to go this summer. And I don’t understand it either. If “we’re all in this together,” why are we leaving children and youth behind?

While Canadians enjoy summer drinks on makeshift patios or head to the mall to pick out a new swimsuit and sandals before heading to the beach, children continue to suffer in silence. They no longer have access to school. Childcare spaces are few and far between. Summer camps and recreational programs are limited. And with no clear plan for a safe re-opening of schools in September, there is little hope in sight.

Children have been dealing with unprecedented stress due to the pandemic, and it’s reaching a tipping point. Through the Young Canadians’ Parliament (YCP), children across Canada recently called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take urgent action as schools closed for summer.

“We have been impacted by this pandemic in so many ways,” explains Sagni Kuma, a Grade 12 student from Ottawa who participated in the YCP event, an initiative organized by Children First Canada to amplify the voices of young people at the highest levels of government. “Now that school has ended, we have less access to teachers and guidance counsellors, and have lost yet another piece of normalcy to our daily routines. Mental health is a huge thing a lot of us struggle with, but we don’t know how to identify or tackle ourselves. We need people reaching out to us, checking up on us, or giving us a way to remain engaged when we would otherwise be unstimulated.”

Canada’s leading children’s hospitals are also sounding the alarm. They warn that COVID-19 can lead to catastrophic impacts on the physical and mental health of children, having both short- and long-term consequences. Young people are crumbling under the weight of social isolation – some battling depression and suicidal thoughts – and emergency measures have increased wait times for planned surgeries and medical care.

To make matters worse, many families are facing financial constraints and lack the resources needed to support the well-being of their children. This looming health crisis is a sobering reminder that the kids are not alright.

Children have a universal right to access education and the best health care possible. We have an obligation to uphold these rights, yet schools are among the last places to re-open in our economic recovery plan, and funding for mental health services is lacking. It will be a failure of leadership at all political levels if we cannot put in place the basic supports our children need to survive let alone thrive.

This week, we celebrate Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18. An advocate for equal rights in South Africa, he was also a champion for children’s rights and education around the world.

As I’ve watched Canada’s response to the pandemic unfold, this quote from Mandela has been on my mind: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Canada is far from being a world-leading country for kids to grow up. According to UNICEF, we rank 25th out of 41 affluent nations for children’s well-being. Sadly, we drop to the bottom ranks on key measures, such as child poverty and children’s health and safety. Despite this reality, many Canadians believe our country is one of the best places to raise a child. But what’s happening in the lives of children right now is proving otherwise.

Come September, I want to hear school bells ringing in every city and town across this country. But until then, we’ll be sounding the alarm bell and calling on our government to act – because it’s time for change.

Sara Austin is the founder and CEO of Children First Canada.

The federal government must act now to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s kids and keep them safe.

Kids can’t wait! Sign our petition today.