When a group of kids were invited for a playdate last month in six-year-old Gaby Munshaw’s neighbourhood, she was told she couldn’t join the fun.
The Ontario girl had been out riding bikes with friends on June 16, when the parent of a different set of children invited the young cyclists over to his yard.
But Gaby’s mother said that because she is a front-line pandemic worker, her child was excluded.
“He told her that she wasn’t allowed to play because the kids were afraid of her,” Crystal Munshaw told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Thursday. “Because her mommy is a COVID nurse and she might have COVID. My daughter came home in hysterics and hid behind a tree.”
Munshaw, who has since taken a leave from work at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie, to be near Gaby more, hasn’t hugged her daughter in months. She has been living in a trailer parked in the backyard of the Midland home where her parents live with the girl. Only a handful of her colleagues have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, she said, and all were believed to have contracted the virus in the community, not at the hospital.
The rejection Gaby faced because of her mother’s job has been difficult for the girl. She cried herself to sleep that night, said Munshaw.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “This kid is broken and hurting.”
Gaby may not be alone, according to a new Statistics Canada report. Of more than 4,000 respondents in Canadian Perspectives Survey Series, about one in five said they fear being exposed to COVID-19 stigmatization as public health restrictions lift across the country. About one in ten said they feared stigma associated with their work at a hospital or other health-care facility.
The social consequences felt by health-care workers has been evident throughout the pandemic, including reports in some countries of nurses being “assaulted, abused and ostracized.” In New Brunswick, a doctor gained international attention when he was blamed for causing a cluster of COVID-19 cases after crossing provinces to pick up his young daughter because the girl’s mother had to attend a funeral in Africa.
The new Statistics Canada report suggests there is considerable social fear among Canadians beyond contracting the virus itself. But for Munshaw, this isn’t about being afraid anymore.
“It’s not a fear. It’s reality,” she told CTVNews.ca.
“I know I can’t be alone. I’ve now been off work for three weeks because I’m having panic attacks every time I think about going back… and how it’s going to affect her and how I help her through it. The stigma is real.”
Despite the stigma that Munshaw and her daughter have experienced, children are at far lower risk of contracting COVID-19, according to available data. Across Canada, there have been fewer than 8,000 known cases of the virus in children and teens and only one death among people under the age of 20, though much is unclear about that solitary case.
While children may be less vulnerable to the health effects of COVID-19 as a disease, parents have expressed concerns about setbacks in numerous other areas, including social, behavioural and academic regression.
Social consequences related to stigmatization are best combated with education, says Toronto pediatrician Dr. Dina Kulik.
“Empowerment comes from education,” she told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Thursday. “Let’s say you have a seven-year-old and they’re being bullied or shunned because they have a runny nose. Let’s teach our kid to express through education why it is that they’re not a risk to other people. Or teaching them: ‘This is why we’re going to stay two metres away from people, this is why we’re wearing a mask, why we’re washing our hands.’ If they understand how to protect themselves and others, and they come into a situation where others are judging them, they can use that knowledge to educate others to minimize or lessen the burden of that stigma.”
This type of strategy may be easier for some children than others, suggested Munshaw, whose daughter has a speech delay that worsens in stressful situations. Munshaw wishes more adults would be educated about risk levels, too.
“Guaranteed I’m not the only one dealing with this with a child. Guaranteed I’m not the only health-care worker being treated like garbage because you are a COVID nurse and people are uneducated,” she said.
“At a time when we’re saying ‘We’re all in this together,’ we’re not.”
Since the incident in June, Munshaw reached out to two of Gaby’s friends who also have front-line worker parents. Gaby has had playdates with each of them now this month. They’ve been swimming, had a bonfire, and played in the rain with water guns.
Gaby still knows that kids are “afraid of her,” Munshaw said, but small moments have been helping. Earlier this week, a neighbourhood friend biked by and asked if Gaby wanted to join.
“She flew off the porch so quick,” her mom said. “She went for a bike ride twice around the block and came back and said to my mom, ‘See, I do have a friend.’”