A day in the life of Dr Meenakshi Sharma, a neonatologist at a speciality hospital in Bengaluru, Dr Neha Cariappa, a paediatrician from Delhi and ENT surgeon Dr Rashmi Dsouza from Mangaluru is mired by protocol. Getting to the hospital, scrubbing, wearing PPE, mask, glove, face shield, sanitising after rounds, they bathe, scrub, clean, wear a new set of clothes, and hurry home to their children.

All doctors follow laborious and detailed sanitising routines, regardless of the stress of a workday, yet beyond the stigma they face, as parents they are particularly anguished. As their children too have to face discrimination as their friends don’t play with them anymore. The lockdown has been a lesson in isolation. Dr Neha’s son felt a subtle shift when he went out to play and his best friend refused to meet him. Hurt, bawling, and confused, he dragged himself home.

Dr Meenakshi’s son and daughter’s friends also find excuses not to play with him. Covid 19 has taken a toll on all. The heartrending stories of doctor’s children facing stigma continue. And the child cannot comprehend these prejudices. And this is playing havoc with their sunny personalities.

Sensitising people on being prudent with doctors and their children is what doctors are asking for, even though for some the damage has already been done. After taking care of the infirm, being on the frontline since March, seeing their own being prejudiced against does not sit lightly on their already weary shoulders.

“My daughter is small, and my son is 10. As I stay in an apartment and am the only medico, my children felt isolated, even though the reaction was indirect and subtle. Friends she had been playing with for four years stopped coming out. It undermined her morale immensely. As parents we feel bad. If school had been open, this would not have weighed down on them so much. Now, for our children, it is a double volley – the stigma and lack of school. For her birthday, she made a list of friends who on some pretext did not come. While I understand the parental fear, but children can’t grasp this. Today, she has become the opposite of the outgoing girl she was,” says Dr Meenakshi, who finds her daughter clinging to her. “We understand the fear. Yet on the one hand people rush to us in their hour of need, but otherwise, we feel ostracised,” she adds.

Dr Dsouza six-year-old son Hugh has been dealing with social isolation and Hugh is sad, “This virus has changed everything (as) both my mom and dad are doctors. I wait for them to come home but can’t run and hug or kiss them. I miss that so much. I used to visit my grandparents, now we do video calls. Everybody’s parents are at home except mine. I just want this to end,” says the boy whose constant refrain is, “when will Covid end so I can play with my friends.”

Children are most affected and need pertinent interventions. “As far as children of doctors go, I have no first-hand experience. However, the issues for children vary greatly based on age. For primary school children, the biggest fallout is a lack of social development. Many social skills can only be learned in experiential situations. The lack of physical social interaction that they are exposed to at school or less formal settings will lead to stagnation in a child’s social development. It is important that the parents set up video calls with their friends and cousins so they may remain connected to them,” says Arati Devaiah, counsellor and rehabilitation therapist.

Dr Rashmi is thankful that she has yet to feel the stigma that metro doctors are facing, in Mangaluru. She feels every doctor lives with the constant fear that they might inadvertently carry the virus home, and all take extreme precautions. “After a long day at work as an ENT surgeon, I always looked forward to getting home to my son who greets me effusively. Right now, the affection has to wait until after mom, wearing gloves (which have been changed in the car) has stripped them, soaked clothes in warm detergent water and had a shower!” As Rashmi’s husband is an anaesthetist… they take twice the precautions. “Donning a 17-piece personal protective equipment set, removing it in 11 steps, and still wondering whether we can spread it to the vulnerable sure does put us through an emotional ordeal,” says Rashmi.

Dr Meenakshi realises that Covid is a permanent worry till a vaccine is launched, thus pleads, “Society has to accept and adapt. Children have to mingle, let them all mix with their peers so that they are not left isolated. Of course wear masks, do social distancing, but let children be children.”

For Dr Neha Cariappa, many friends voluntarily decided not to let their children play. “It was not verbal, more indirect as they are scared and our kids also felt lost. Now, slowly they have understood and have started sending their kids, after months of the lockdown,” she says.

She admits that for her son, it was a setback when he could not meet his friends. While there is a slow change in behaviour, they all stress that,

“We wear masks, scrub, sanitise, maintain social distance, when we are in the PPE kits. There is no need to be frightened.”

Dr Manoj Sharma, professor of Clinical Psychology, coordinator of SHUT Clinic, Nimhans has seen a stark rise in conflicts during Covid especially concerning children. He, however, speaks of the basic problem a child faces: engaging them with lack of study, and play during lockdown is the main worry for parents. “Basically, the lockdown has brought many restrictions to a child’s activities. From online classes, the isolation and social stigma. Parents might push the child to pack the day with activities to keep them busy but that’s not the best way.”

Devaiah adds, “It is important for parents to have open discussions about the pandemic around the dinner table with older children, and listen to opinions and concerns, address them. For most adolescents, rather than stress about excessive screen time, parents need to focus on encouraging them to have social screen time. Do homework together, video calls rather than texting… have group exercise classes.”

Though Dr Sharma also says that parents are very judgemental about online time too. Stressing the need to take time to communicate with the child, he adds, “There is also increased vigilance to know what the child is doing. I see many parents work on a very structured schedule but a child looks for openness and fun. If you bring more structure, some might like it but others might resist. This decreases productivity, increases food avoidance, cuts interaction, and adds to displaced anger. Each child has his own style of functioning. I would recommend parents spend quality time with their children,” Dr Sharma adds.

Of the added stigma that doctor’s children also face, Dr Sharma says, “Work on communication, care and commitment. Show you care, which increases understanding. Try and contribute to caring engagement in activities. A corroborative, motivational approach to a child’s well-being is best. Show them care, appreciation and acknowledge their fears.”