Even before the pandemic, Diana’s parents had repeatedly entertained the idea of moving her to a school that might make more accommodations for her visual impairments. But Diana loves her friends. She feels appropriately challenged by her classes; she has designs on a career in patent law. Now, the headaches, nausea, and fatigue are chipping away at her mental health. And many social interactions—the psychological bandages that once held her education together—have atrophied and disappeared. “If we’re not mostly in person, without having to be on Zoom, by next year,” Diana told me, “I think I’m going to lose it.”
Pombar, Diana’s pediatrician, told me that most of her patients have had an absolutely miserable year. Some kids have been skipping routine immunizations. Others have retreated into unhealthy habits, spending eight to 10 hours a day playing video games. Many, like Diana, have seen their mental health begin to crack and crumble; Pombar has had to send several patients to the emergency room as a last resort. A few of her patients gained 30 to 50 pounds in just a couple of months, and are now teetering on the edge of morbid obesity. “That’s something that will kill kids silently,” she said. “An obese child is a very sick child, but nobody’s talking about that.”
The power of being a pediatrician, Pombar told me, is being able to intervene early—to prevent health problems before they appear. That all fell to the wayside while the country descended into crisis. “It felt like you were at war and you had to choose which battles to fight,” Pombar said. “We’re now paying the price of all the things we pushed.”
The psychological losses are even harder to nail down. Allison Agwu, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins, told me that it will take a long time for researchers to fully capture what America’s youth have lost to the pandemic. It’s been a year “devoid of normalcy,” she said, and adding up chaos during a crisis isn’t easy: “Which part is the virus? Which part is society?”
Diana, like many others, can’t pin her problems to a single inflection point. The entirety of the pandemic, this extended interruption to normalcy, is catching up to her in bursts.
An only child, Diana is close with her parents. Their home is spacious enough that it easily accommodated her brief isolation when she tested positive for the coronavirus at the end of February. She practiced her bass, binge-watched Criminal Minds, and took her meals on trays.
But even now that her tussle with the coronavirus is over, Diana doesn’t feel terribly liberated. Her world remains shrunken: Her home has, for more than a year, been her classroom, her entertainment center, her all-purpose nexus for existence. There is nowhere to escape to. She misses taking trips to Chinatown, and singing Disney songs with her friends. She misses sitting on her school’s campus with her classmates, filching grapes and crackers from their lunches.