OP-ED: It’s time for the Reflection Phase of Illinois’ COVID-19 response

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois followed a “Restore Illinois” model ranging from “Phase 1: Rapid Spread” to “Phase 5: Illinois Restored.” Illinois has already achieved Phase 5, and we are looking forward to our future beyond this pandemic. However, as we turn from the past two years our view of the future is obstructed by a mirror. In its reflection are the side effects of the past two years of COVID-19 mitigations and our eyes adjust to reveal the realities staring back at us. They are difficult to stomach.

In April 2020, I sent a letter to Governor Pritzker urging him to consider the devastating effects that social isolation had on the mental health of our communities. I called for a holistic approach to save lives from both COVID and the government’s response to COVID. We know now that the lockdowns did not occur in a silo and upsetting statistics show us the effect the pandemic had on children’s mental health.

A CDC report released this April stated that approximately one-third of high schoolers “experienced poor mental health (most of the time or always)” during the pandemic. In the year leading up to the 2021 survey, 44.2% of these students had experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” In that same time period, 19.9% of students seriously considered attempting suicide. 9% did attempt suicide.

For younger children, a November 2021 NAMI Parent Survey reported 58% of children ages three and up struggled with being away from their friends as long as they had been. Additionally, 20% of parents then said their children felt more stressed and anxious than they did before the pandemic. The month prior, the American Academy of Pediatrics joined other organizations in declaring a “National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health.”

With the children’s mental health crisis, a tumultuous economy, and the consequences of the pandemic on education, we are being shown that not taking into account the advice of experts in other fields in addition to epidemiologists was not inconsequential. There never was one good solution to this pandemic. Rather, there was a choice to be made among several bad solutions in which we had to identify the “least bad” one.

What we can do now is reflect to be prepared for times of future crisis. I continue to recommend listening to all the experts when making these decisions, not just experts from one field. We need to understand how government response to one issue could affect other critical issues and incorporate our findings in decision-making.

When we adopt a holistic focus for complex human beings who will be subject to our policies, we can approach future emergencies with thoughtful, comprehensive responses. Instead of looking past the mirror in front of us, we must take this opportunity to rectify the devastating impacts these mitigations had on our communities. In doing so, we can learn from the past and ensure past mistakes are avoided in future emergencies. Before we move past Phase 5 into a brighter future, I urge us all in Springfield to take Phase 6 on the way out: Reflection.