For months we’ve been told we must “flatten the curve.” As a medical doctor with 20 years experience taking care of patients, I strongly agree. We know we must prevent the “spike” of serious viral illnesses, to avoid overwhelming our health care system.
But in our single minded pursuit of that goal, we have created another “spike” — one of social problems, which will soon overwhelm the social system. We’ve heard a lot about the economic impact, but I have not heard anyone — in the government, mainstream press or “alternative” press — publicly talk about the social impact of the lockdown, particularly the devastation caused by school closures.
Quarantines, by definition, keep people apart. Thanks to our ubiquitous technological devices, at least we still have some connections. But nothing will replace the emotional benefit of in-person conversation, and many people have been deprived of the normal variety of social interactions — and exchange of ideas. That’s part of the reason why the social impact of the crisis hasn’t been fully appreciated.
As a physician in private practice, we were shut down for a month. After reopening, we came back at less than half our full capacity. The advantage of seeing fewer patients is that I have more time to have meaningful conversations with each of them. I have had the privilege of hearing many personal stories from my patients, as I invite almost every one of them to share what their lives are like during this lockdown.
Over the past several weeks I’ve had dozens of conversations with teachers, guidance counselors, principals, mental health professionals, family law attorneys, social workers, court officials, prison officers, rape crisis nurses, foster care directors, etc. What I see is that there is a pandemic of social problems: depression, anxiety, mental illness, substance abuse, domestic abuse and worst of all in my opinion, child abuse — and nobody is publicly talking about it. We want to talk about masks and vaccines and the economy. I want to talk about children at risk.
A few specific examples:
One high school senior is suffering depression because she gets no high school graduation. She pictured that moment of recognition, walking across the stage, hearing her name called, flipping the tassel, hearing her friends and family cheer. That vision motivated her for her entire life. That dream is gone.
A high school guidance counselor from a high achieving school, spoke with a grave voice, “It. Is. Bad. Parents are calling me constantly, begging for help, saying their teen is depressed, lying in bed all day long.” I can feel her frustration as she says, “What can I do, I can’t go to their home.”
A family law attorney told me, “I’m going to have an avalanche of work, handling major fallout from this lockdown. I may not get paid, because everyone is unemployed, but there will be tons of work. Divorces, custody battles, and worse.”
One teenaged boy never had a chance to participate in sports because his family couldn’t afford it. He got into selling drugs. A youth program introduced him to baseball. He discovered he was good at it, and he loved it. With something to look forward to, something to be proud of, he started to turn his life around. Then the lockdown happened, it was bye-bye baseball. What do you think he is sliding back into? Will the lockdown end in time before he winds up in juvenile detention?
Dozens of teachers tell me that their children come to school as their only safe space. They stay awake at night, worried about these children, usually (but not always) from socioeconomically underprivileged backgrounds. Many are now locked down at home in abusive and dangerous situations. Social workers and court officials tell me child abuse was already underreported. Now with the prolonged lockdown there’s a spike in cases. Abuse, rape, incest, unwanted pregnancies. A rape crisis nurse tells me that it’s well established that rapes increase during holidays and summers — i.e. when school is out.
The most heartbreaking story was about a little girl from a rough part of town who said to her teacher, “I just want someone to love me.” Her teacher is the one person in her life from whom she experiences a taste of being treated with love. And now that has been ripped away from her.
A teacher from a relatively privileged elementary school told me that when she told her first grade students that classes have been canceled for the rest of the year, the entire class burst into tears. How do you even handle 30 crying 6 year olds?
I say to our leaders, please don’t be — as Gru said in the movie "Despicable Me" — the “destroyer of little girls’ dreams.” Protect our children and their dreams. Open our schools. Flatten this other curve.
Joseph H. Chang, MD, is a board certified ophthalmologist, with a subspecialty emphasis in oculoplastic surgery. He practices at Empire Eye and Laser Center in Bakersfield, and Turner Medical Arts in Santa Barbara. He is the founder of the nonprofit Advanced Center for Eyecare in Bakersfield.