Op-Ed: Mistreating children as ‘following the science’

(| The Center Square) – For roughly two years, parents of small children and even toddlers have been forced to mask them, to cover the faces of kids who, confused and hurt, have fought to remove their masks and forge their first human connections. Last week, a state court in Sangamon County, Illinois, granted a temporary restraining order preventing school districts in the state from enforcing an unconstitutional command imposed unilaterally by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Pritzker’s order, originally issued in August 2021 without the input of state lawmakers, attempted to skirt judicial review by placing the child masking rule within the ambit of the state’s department of education. Americans have come to accept the assumptive overstepping of our executives and the meek submission of our legislatures.

We live in a permanent state of emergency in which, our rulers argue, citizen democracy and individual rights would imperil our safety. Illinoisans, like Americans more generally, expect and deserve to have an active role in the democratic process and thus in the rules that affect our lives and those of our children. This ruling from an Illinois court signals respect for the traditional separation of powers that defines our system of government.

It has become clear that the “follow the science” narrative – which has effectively shut down reasoned democratic debate and imposed harmful, life-altering rules on our children – was a political tactic to silence dissent, not an evidence-based philosophy for our protection. Two years into this political catastrophe, parents, and citizens have begun to demand a meaningful say in the democratic process and a substantive role in the decisions our children are living with every day.

Americans are now living amidst an unprecedented mental health crisis, orders of magnitude more dangerous to children and teenagers than is COVID-19. Despite the grown-up self-delusion that says children are resilient, this crisis has fallen most heavily on children, who are decidedly not resilient, but confused, scared, and vulnerable. These children represent the limits of our care and compassion; they have no money, pressure groups, lobbyists, or political clout – no way to fight back against the abuse to which we’ve subjected them.

Many articles have misleadingly pointed out that there is no evidence showing that masks harm children. They state that there are no solid studies on the compelled masking of children as if that favors covering the faces of children against their will. It’s far from clear, though, that the lack of good data should favor the most extreme and authoritarian policy idea. As Vinay Prasad writes in criticism of forced child masking, “The CDC cannot ‘follow the science’ because there is no relevant science.” The next time you read an article pointing triumphantly to the lack of evidence that masks harm children, think about what that means. We must state the point clearly for those not paying attention: a proper study on masking children would require something patently unethical, masking children. Of course, we never organized and carried out such a study. We knew it was wrong before partisanship compromised our critical faculties.

The truth is that we do know what covering their faces does to kids. Studies have shown that “emotional reading was strongly irritated by the presence of a mask,” and that “[f]aces are among the most important visual stimuli,” particularly for children. Add to that what we know about the importance of faces to humans and our well-being, and it becomes clear that we’re not following the science, but resisting it as myopically and insensitively as possible.

Illinois politicians are infamous for their corruption and tin-ear approach to the issues that are important to the people of the state, but recently introduced bills bring these patterns to new heights. State Rep. Bob Morgan, for example, recently introduced a bill that would automatically (whether the patient has given express permission or not) entrust Illinoisans’ vaccination records to a centralized, government-run database. Pritzker’s promise to challenge the restraining order is in line with this undemocratic and authoritarian approach.

It’s important to recognize at this point that coercively masking children against the judgments of their parents or legal guardians is not something that comes with an inherent left or right character. Indeed, before the pandemic (and the Trump presidency), we might have expected that pro-choice public policies would naturally be taken up by liberals and progressives, given their traditional concern for civil liberties and bodily autonomy.

But history and politics are and have always been more accident than principle, more feeling than theory, so we have vulnerable adults unmasked at pro sports arenas and children masked in small groups with their classmates. At every stage of the pandemic, we have failed our children. We’ve comforted ourselves with platitudes about their resilience, but the truth is children are vulnerable – and we’re seeing that fact express itself in a terrible and worsening mental health crisis. If we as adults want to indulge our panics, manias, and neuroses, we should be free to, but let us at least stop foisting these on children, to whom COVID-19 presents no serious risk.