How Spain’s coronavirus lockdown is affecting children

Youngsters are suffering from anxiety, stress and weight problems, experts warn, with no clear date in sight for relaxation of the confinement

Two siblings look out their bedroom window during the lockdown in Madrid.
Two siblings look out their bedroom window during the lockdown in Madrid.Andrea Comas (EL PAÍS)

It is still unclear why the coronavirus affects children less than it does adults. But the data shows that mortality rates among young people are practically zero. There are very few cases, and when there are, they tend to be very mild. But the pandemic is having its effect on them too. In Spain, they can’t even use the weekly trip to the store as an excuse to get out onto the street and get some air. They have been cooped up at home for more than a month now, with more weeks likely to come, and the confinement is already bringing with it problems of anxiety, obesity and a lack of education for the children.

A number of voices are calling for solutions, that the restrictions be lifted slightly so that children can get out onto the street – albeit for short periods of time and close to home. This measure was introduced by Italy at the start of the month, and some epidemiologists view it positively, as long as it is carried out in a very controlled way. European countries such as France and Germany also allow children to leave confinement.

For now, and we are conscious of the sacrifice, we have to maintain this measure
Health Minister Salvador Illa

Some regional premiers in Spain have called for similar alternatives to be studied, such as Alberto Núñez Fejóo in Galicia, Javier Lambán in Aragón, and Miguel Ángel Revilla in Cantabria. The deputy premier of Madrid, Ignacio Aguado, has called for a relaxation on April 26, when the current state of alarm ends.

The Health Ministry is not considering such a move for now. Asked about the topic by journalists, Health Minister Salvador Illa said on Monday: “We are going to act with the utmost caution. When we believe that the safety conditions to take this decision are there, based on the data, we will take it and make it known. For now, and we are conscious of the sacrifice, we have to maintain this measure.”

But there is some movement on the topic. The Health Ministry has called on the Spanish Pediatrics Association to create a working group to evaluate the conditions for relaxing the confinement of children.

“We are putting together a report that will take into account that this will be a delicate process, given that we have to guarantee the wellbeing of children, but also take into account that they are major transmitters of the illness and they have to always be accompanied by an adult,” the association explains.

Infants and young children are more likely to adopt inappropriate dietary habits during confinement

This document will specify which children should have priority when it comes to leaving the home, and for which reasons, as well as the way of doing it without it involving a risk for them or for society as a whole.

The strict confinement measures are already having an effect, several specialists consulted for this article agree. The Spanish Society for Obesity (SEEDO) pointed out yesterday that infants and young children are more likely to adopt inappropriate dietary habits during confinement and they estimate that children and adolescents will put on 5% of their total weight during this period. They calculate that there could have been an increase of at least a kilo of body fat among Spanish children over the last month.

“In a few months, the children who right now are scared and inhibited will start to manifest the traumas and real problems that their mental health is generating in this situation,” explains psychiatrist Diego Figuera Álvarez, from the Clínico San Carlos Hospital. “What has happened is generating and will generate traumas both in infancy and adolescence,” he says. “Traumatic memories create dissociated memories and they turn into behavioral problems that will manifest when children return to school, or will become somatizations,” i.e. a physical manifestation of emotional problems.

Alicia Arévalo, a pediatrician from a primary care center in Madrid, explains that consults about emotional issues have doubled. “They are coming with nightmares, night terrors, sleep disorders, eating problems… And also, on an emotional level, they are highly sensitive, they cry for no reason, they are introverted, they are not saying what is on their mind and they blow up for any reason. Many of them are terrified because they think their grandparents are going to die, or their parents are going to lose their jobs,” the pediatrician says.

Children who are on the autism spectrum or are hyperactive have been “subject to genuine suffering by the confinement”

Many of this pediatrician’s consults, 90% of which are via telephone, are due to somatizations. “They arrive with intense headaches, chest or stomach pains, palpitations, or breathing difficulties, and in reality, when you speak to them, the causes emerge – it’s the materialization of the anxiety that they are going through; they can’t put a name to it and that’s how it manifests,” the doctor explains.

Children who have some kind of neurological condition, such as those who are on the autism spectrum or are hyperactive, have been “subject to genuine suffering by the confinement,” she explains.

David Andina, an emergency room pediatrician from the Niño Jesús Hospital, also points out that there has been an increase in emergency cases for intoxications as well as household accidents.

“What’s happening in Spain is totally crazy,” says Cecile in her WhatsApp group, Mamás en Madrid (Moms in Madrid). She has two children, aged eight and four, and her husband is in isolation due to the coronavirus. “I think about the people who don’t even have a balcony, and it’s terrible,” adds Liz. “Children who have spent more than a month without seeing the sun, or getting any air. It’s unhealthy. I don’t understand the risks of taking a walk in the countryside, or of going out with a bike or a scooter,” as children can do in other European countries.

“They are not letting us use the common areas in our apartment block,” adds Gilmara in the same chat group. We had organized shifts so that we could take it in turns, but the building administrator said that we couldn’t do it. If we have to spend the summer like this…”

The conversation is a clear example of the concern among families who can’t understand why people are allowed to travel on the Metro to get to work, while children have to remain behind closed doors. “At this rate the bars will be back open but the kids will still be locked up,” says Elisa, another mother.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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