Throwing a hug and living amidst corona: A primer for children on Covid-19

Sanjeet Bagcchi | Updated on May 15, 2020 Published on May 15, 2020

Child’s view: Over 50 organisations collaborated to produce My Hero is You   -  IMAGE COURTESY: IASC/HELEN PATUCK

International organisations, including the WHO, have come together to create story and comic books that familiarise children with the realities of a virus-infected world

* My Hero is You, a storybook for children developed through a collaboration of over 50 organistions, including WHO and Red Cross

*Health ministry in India is also reaching out to children and helping them deal with the pandemic

Little Sara asks her mother: What does Covid-19 look like? The mother tells the daughter, “Covid-19, or the coronavirus, is so tiny we can’t see it ... But it spreads in the coughs and sneezes of people who are sick, and when they touch people or things around them. People who are sick get a fever and a cough and can have some trouble breathing.”

This exchange is from My Hero is You, a storybook for children developed through a collaboration of over 50 organisations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), International Federation of Red Cross, United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), Red Crescent Societies and Save the Children. The purpose of the book, published last month, is to create awareness about Covid-19 among children and help them cope with the pandemic.

“[The book] explains how children can protect themselves, their families and friends from coronavirus and how to manage difficult emotions when confronted with a new and rapidly changing reality,” WHO points out in a statement.

Along with English and several foreign languages, the book has also been translated into Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil. The illustrated book targets children aged 6-11 years and revolves around fantasy hero Ario and kids Sara, Sasha and Salem among others. It educates young readers — through impressive storytelling — on ways to stay away from Covid-19. For instance, Sasha tells Ario, “We have to stay at least one metre apart, so I will throw you a hug!” While working on the project, eminent illustrator and scriptwriter Helen Patuck and team relied on inputs from 1,700-odd children, parents, teachers and caregivers from across the world.

International organisations are not the only ones looking at minors. The health ministry in India is also reaching out to children and helping them deal with the pandemic. Kids, Vaayu and Corona — Who Wins the Fight? is a graphic novel written by Ravindra Khaiwal of the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, and Suman Mor of Panjab University. In this comic book, Vaayu, a superhero, works to protect public health and environment.

Vaayu helps his young friends understand the different aspects of the virus infection. For instance, he says, “The mortality rate of Corona virus is 2%. That means if 100 people got infected with virus, only 2 persons are likely to die.” He goes on to tell the children about other infectious diseases: “In the past we have seen SARS having mortality rate of 10%, Swine flu having mortality rate of 4.5% and Ebola even more.”

Paediatricians welcome these initiatives aimed at engaging the younger generation in conversations around the virus. “I appreciate and endorse the steps taken by the WHO and the government,” says Agnimita Giri Sarkar, consultant paediatrician at the Institute of Child Health in Kolkata. “The cartoon form is expected to penetrate into young minds and make them adaptive to the new ways of life,” she says.

Anish Ray, consultant paediatric haematologist and oncologist at the Cook Children’s Medical Center in Texas, US, agrees. “Such efforts help tackle the anxiety that not only adults but children also experience in these uncertain times,” Ray says. He also adds a note of caution: It is important for adults to address the mental well-being of children who may not be able to vocalise their unease, but nevertheless perceive angst and fear.

Covid-19 doesn’t cause any serious illness in most of the infected children, according to a study published this month in JAMA Pediatrics. As the study points out, “[the] severity of illness in infants and children with COVID-19 [was found to be] far less than that documented in adults”. Most paediatric intensive care units across North America had no children admitted with this disease during the study period, it states. “Of the critically ill children with COVID-19, more than 80% had significant long-term underlying medical conditions.”

Paediatricians, however, believe that this infectious disease has a significant impact on the mental well-being of children. “As I am the father of a 10-year-old, parents have requested my help in explaining the situation to our little ones in an age-appropriate vocabulary,” Ray says. Storybooks, he believes, will be the perfect tool for that. “I think caregivers and doctors alike will find themselves well-equipped with excellent tools to explain the ongoing pandemic and the steps we are advocating to contain it,” he adds.

However, doctors such as Sarkar emphasise the need to take these initiatives beyond storybooks and into the curriculum. The cartoon forms should be more age-specific, she says. Sarkar also points out that virtual modules — for instance, cyber games such as “Corona fighters” — are expected to grow in popularity among children. “Daily hand-sanitising, mask wearing and social distancing drills in the schools will [also] infuse a new discipline in young minds,” she adds.

The importance of personal health and hygiene can be emphasised through comic books and stories, says Sanchita Roy, a Kolkata-based paediatrician. Television and radio, comic books and cartoons are all mediums that may be used to reach out to children and teach them a fact or two about dealing with the virus, Roy notes.

Sanjeet Bagcchi is a physician and an independent writer based in Kolkata

Published on May 15, 2020

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