Chip Le Grand writes “While lockdowns were aimed to protect at-risk sectors of the community, they also created new vulnerabilities as shown by the spike in eating disorders among young people” (Running on empty, The Age Weekend Magazine, August 20 2022, an edited extract from his book Lockdown (published by Monash, 2022). He continues: “young people have missed out on two years of experiential learning.  People in their 20s feel like they have been robbed of their youth… And, furthermore: “the pandemic is very different for young people compared to adults in the middle to late stages of their lives…” In support of the position that the risk factor for young people is low, Le Grand cites a “mortality rate of 0.0002 percent or one in 50,000 deaths” for young people. That is one young person too many and we need to be mindful of what we are prepared to accept in order for schools to remain open such as the death of one young person for the ‘greater good’. This position also assumes that young people by and large are healthy. However, it overlooks the fact that not all young people are healthy. For instance, many may have pre-existing health conditions rendering them vulnerable to Covid.

On the surface, Le Grand showcases an important untold story of humanity shedding light on the adverse impacts on the mental health of young Victorians, due to a series of lockdowns in Victoria in response to the Covid pandemic. His tone, though, comes across as somewhat dismissive. It is not just people in the “middle to later stages of their lives” who were/are vulnerable to Covid but people of all ages especially those with a pre-existing health condition. He neglects to mention, too, important, relevant factors such as the lag between the outbreak of Covid and the scramble to develop and distribute vaccines necessary to give people a running start against Covid.

The extract does not say so explicitly but its meaning is clearly implied: that the lockdowns unfairly and unnecessarily adversely impacted young people indicated by the rising caseload of young people presenting to hospital with eating disorders. Whilst it is acknowledged that adolescent eating disorders predate covid, the extract appears to imply nonetheless that eating disorders in young people are a ‘stressor’ of lockdown. In the instance of rising case numbers, correlation appears to be taken for causation: the former identifies patterns of association whereas the latter requires a much higher standard of substantiation to hold. By virtue of the fact that there has been a marked rise in the number of cases of ‘poor’ mental health as a result of lockdown, cannot be taken as irrefutable proof of the adverse impacts of lockdown on young people. Of course, it (lockdown in Victoria) was hard on everyone including young people.

Is an eating disorder, one manifestation of how young people express their anxiety? How and or why is it that young people choose not to eat (anorexia) or choose to eat and then purge (bulimia) in response to lockdown? Or is it just anorexia? Who chooses to become anorexic because of lockdown? Is it possible that the propensity to starve in individuals already existed pre-pandemic? In other words, was there already a major problem regarding the mental health of young people before the pandemic – and lockdown – threw a massive curveball.

What are there, if any, other contributing factors? Pressures to perform, pressures to look a certain way, pressures around inclusion or exclusion, pressures in the home, abuse or bullying?  Is the inference that young people preferred to starve themselves to death than live in a seemingly perpetual state of lockdown? Does this then underpin the rationale that lockdown (in Victoria) ‘caused’ the unnecessary deaths of young people which could have been avoided if the Victorian government adopted the liberal policy of keeping schools open since young people are less affected by covid than adults. On that basis the question, then, is whether the Victorian Labor Government under Dan Andrews is responsible for the deaths of young people by suicide? Is this what Le Grand is wanting to say but can only imply?

His tone comes across as mean spirited. It’s as if children paid the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of society, having pretty much lost two years of socialisation, through school closures and the like, which is without question crucial to their development. However, he neglects to mention important relevant factors such as the lag between the outbreak of covid and the scramble to develop and distribute vaccines. And what about the ongoing stress on the health system? My cousin is an emergency nurse and she is stuffed. She hates wearing an M95 mask when on duty but MUST (there is no choice) to protect herself and others from infection.

The entire objective of lockdown was to save lives, all lives, in the absence of a vaccine to Covid-19. It seems to me that those who readily dismiss the need for lockdown, don’t actually believe that people died from Covid or that if people did die, they did not think that death would come knocking at their door. Presumably, the were not directly affected by a family member or friend dying of Covid. Thus, they were prepared to take the risk not only for themselves but for others by questioning or protesting against lockdown. Ditto for refusing to wear a mask. This comes across as entitlement: To do what one does and wants to do regardless.

There is no denying that everyone was impacted by stay-at-home orders and border closures. My parents passed (separately) in New Zealand in 2020 but I could not attend their funerals. As much as this cost me personally, I accepted the rationalisation for lockdown in terms of the need to protect myself and others from covid. People died, including children, and continue to die. The current policy framework is ‘living with Covid’. But, for some, the cold hard reality is actually dying not living with Covid.

In putting adolescent mental health front and centre to the debate on lockdown, important though this is, we ought to be mindful that we do not inadvertently pave the way for a new culture of victimology in which young people look inward to doubt and distrust. It is conceivable that when we look beyond ourselves, and the curtailing of our individual rights or freedoms, we can fully appreciate the value in every life and conduct ourselves in the knowledge that we have the capacity to redefine ourselves and our lives.