Children of the Pandemic: Let’s make this generation the healthiest that has ever lived

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.

Co-authored by Richard Wilkinson, on behalf of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance and The Equality Trust


There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children

  — Nelson Mandela

The coronavirus pandemic is changing the lives of children across the world, with both predictable and unforeseeable short- and long-term effects on children’s development and lifelong well-being. Children are experiencing massive changes in daily routines and education, many in families that are experiencing losses of work, income and loved ones, and fear and anxiety about infection and life beyond the crisis.  

In the past, child well-being policies almost inevitably focused on the most vulnerable children – those living in poverty, or in deprived neighbourhoods, those who were refugees, abused or neglected.  In the United Kingdom in recent years, we have had epidemics of knife crime, self-harm and mental illness but these were not accompanied by any policies focused on the underlying root causes of poverty – inequality and austerity. Instead, we saw an emphasis on parenting interventions, as if the wider context were too difficult to tackle. Now, the coronavirus crisis is shifting our perspective, bringing into sharp focus the pre-existing vulnerability of too many children to the politics, policies and practices that perpetuate inequality. We can see that some children are more vulnerable to the impacts of lockdown – school and nursery closures, sheltering in place and physical distancing. But children in some of the more unequal rich countries hardest hit by the pandemic, the United States and United Kingdom, were already less resilient than children in more equal countries, with worse health, well-being and educational attainment. By comparing children in more and less equal societies, we might be able to learn the lessons of how to look after all our children better.

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The key to a holistic understanding of how we create population-wide child well-being is grasping the fact that economic inequality – disparities in wealth and income – affects all children within a society. Yes, the poor suffer more, and children living in poverty and deprivation experience a double detriment, and even more so in the current crisis. But there is growing evidence that the effects of living in a more unequal society are felt even among the children of the affluent, well-educated middle and upper classes.

Figure from: Bird P, Pickett KE, Graham H, et al. "Income inequality and social gradients in children’s height: a comparison of cohort studies from five high-income countries". BMJ Paediatrics Open 2019; 0:e000568. doi:10.1136/ bmjpo-2019-000568

In our books The Spirit Level (2009) and The Inner Level (2018), we present and interpret the robust and broad evidence of the effects of income inequality on the health and well-being of whole populations. For children, inequality leads to lower child well-being when measured by Unicef indices, as well as worse infant mortality, child obesity, bullying, child maltreatment, teenage pregnancies, educational attainment and social mobility. Indirectly, children are affected by the impact of inequality on parents’ mental and physical health, long working hours, high levels of debt, drug and alcohol abuse and problem gambling.

All of these problems stem from the way in which greater economic inequality increases the importance of social status, class and rank within a society; the way in which material differences create social distances between us. In less equal societies people trust one another less, participate less in civic and cultural life, feel less solidarity with others and suffer more from the day-to-day social comparisons as we experience ourselves through other people’s eyes. There is more anxiety about status, more depression and, on the flip side, more narcissism and self-enhancement as well.  Relationships within wider society and the public realm, in workplaces and schools, and within families are all corrupted by the invidious psychosocial damage caused by inequality. This picture is supported by a wealth of both quantitative and qualitative academic research, across many decades and many disciplines. Brought together, the data tell a coherent story about how desperately we need to reorient our societal goals towards well-being. Politicians tend to think that’s what they’re doing but so often they are clearly not.

Digital Vampires: Bolstering mental health during social isolation, by Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology, San Diego State University

Knowledge is the first step in creating change. The OECD’s recent report “Changing the Odds for Vulnerable Children” (2019) will be part of changing the discourse and creating a framework in which to make well-being the primary aim of cross-sector policy making. Intervening to improve child well-being is challenging but we need to step up to the challenges and opportunities for change offered by the coronavirus and demand that policies address root causes and systems so that this generation of children can grow up healthy and resilient. There are many examples of good practice to learn from but one we know well is the Born in Bradford programme. In Bradford, a city in the north of England with high levels of deprivation and ill health, 10 years of collaborative work has created a research-ready, people-powered and data-linked test bed to co-produce, implement and evaluate early life interventions to promote well-being and reduce inequalities. Just as the coronavirus hit, we were building the ActEarly City Collaboratory to provide a whole system environment where the public, scientists, policy leaders and practitioners can work with each other to develop upstream preventive solutions for a healthier, fairer future for children.  Now, the focus has shifted to help the city respond to the immediate crisis and prepare for an inclusive recovery.  We hope that readers of this article will engage with the projects, track our progress and share their own good practices.

Read the OECD's COVID-19 Policy Responses on Learning Remotely when Schools Close

Photo: Shutterstock/Liderina

We are sometimes asked whether the rich and the powerful simply don’t care about children. The answer is, of course, they do – but too often only about their own. That would be less worrying if they used the same schools and health services, but it is dangerous when they don’t. Now, more than ever, we need to foster cultures where we care for each other’s children as for our own, so that we create the policy environment to support all children during and following the coronavirus pandemic.

Finally, we need to listen to children as they tell us about their experiences and their hopes and fears for the future, and be guided by them in setting our priorities. John F. Kennedy said that, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see”. That is true, but we also need to be alive to the messages children, such as Greta Thunberg, are giving us – about how we have failed them in the past, in the time they could never see, how we are letting them down now as they live through this crisis. They can tell us what we need to do to build their opportunities and their resilience.       

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19                    Child Well-being Income Inequality

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Kate Pickett

Author; Professor of Epidemiology, Department of Health Sciences and Research Champion for Justice and Equality, University of York

Kate trained in biological anthropology at Cambridge, nutritional sciences at Cornell and epidemiology at UC-Berkeley. She is currently Professor of Epidemiology in the Department of Health Sciences, and the University's Research Champion for Justice and Equality. Kate was an UK NIHR Career Scientist from 2007-12, is a Fellow of the RSA and a Fellow of the UK Faculty of Public Health. She is co-author, with Richard Wilkinson, of The Spirit Level chosen as one of the Top Ten Books of the Decade by the New Statesman, winner of Publication of the Year by the Political Studies Association and translated into 23 languages. She is a co-founder and trustee of The Equality Trust.

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