When the story of the COVID-19 pandemic is written, it will need to include several chapters — perhaps several volumes — about the unintended consequences of our actions taken in response.
From how closing schools to stem viral spread has resulted in significant and serious learning loss, particularly for the most vulnerable student populations; to how paranoia about kids contracting COVID has actually exacerbated the strain on medical resources by overrunning some emergency rooms with nonemergency patients; and how noble lies about mask use and natural immunity have further eroded public trust in political leaders and health officials.
And now, new data further illustrate how more than 18 months of quarantines, virtual school, disrupted routines, excessive screen time and policies that encourage inactivity have quickly caught up with our kids.
Childhood obesity, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has risen sharply during the pandemic.
According to a paper recently circulated by the agency, body mass index (the measure of weight relative to height) in a sample of 430,000 children increased between March and November 2020 at nearly double the rate that it did before the pandemic began.
ALREADY AT RISK
Unsurprisingly, elementary-aged children and children who were already overweight or obese (and therefore most at risk) experienced the greatest increases.
Another recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association had similar findings, reporting that the portion of children ages 5-11 who are classified as overweight or obese is now a whopping 45.7 percent, up from 36.2 percent before the pandemic.
These numbers are alarming in and of themself, because childhood obesity often presages obesity as an adult and carries with it a whole host of other, often serious, health problems.
But the rise in obesity is also disturbing given what we know about its relationship to the public health crisis at hand: Aside from age, obesity is the most common health condition associated with severe COVID cases, hospitalization and death.
One body of research found that people with obesity who contracted COVID were 113 percent more likely than people of healthy weight to land in the hospital, 74 percent more likely to be admitted to an intensive-care unit, and 48 percent more likely to die.
Child mortality due to COVID is (thankfully) still vanishingly small, but obesity is a common condition of those who have succumbed to the illness.
Yet throughout the pandemic, our collective public response has not just been to ignore the crisis of obesity but in subtle ways to encourage it.
CLOSED PARKS, SPORTS FACILITIES
We need only to think how early on in the COVID crisis, states and localities shuttered public parks, filled skate parks with sand, removed nets from basketball hoops, canceled local sports leagues and required universal mask-wearing outdoors, even in the heat of summer when masks made breathing difficult and being outside onerous.
These policies and practices may have seemed justifiable early on, but they inexplicably continued in many places even after it was well-established that the virus does not spread easily in outdoor settings.
And the bizarre government promotion of poor health practices hasn’t stopped there.
Since the vaccines have been widely available, public officials have partnered with businesses and organizations to entice the public to get vaccinated with offers of free beer, doughnuts and fast food.
Who can forget (however much you might like to) Mayor Bill de Blasio gorging himself on Shake Shack on live TV in an effort to get New Yorkers to vaccinate and “protect” their health?
When small children become vaccine-eligible, the appetite for employing the same kinds of kitschy tactics to encourage them to get the shot will be strong. But political and health leaders should resist it.
In the meantime, they should focus their efforts on finding ways to keep kids healthy — protecting them not just from COVID, but also from the cascade of damaging health consequences our poor policies have contributed to.