Virus outbreak in China
A baby in a mask at the Hong Kong West Kowloon High Speed Train Station, in Hong Kong Image Credit: Reuters

Ayisha Farah, Special to Gulf News

The mask is so heavily inbuilt in our lives today that it feels naked to step out without one. However, no matter how normalised pandemic scenes can get, the sight of children wearing masks never fails to move me.

Until recently, everyone was cooped up at home with little to no social interaction whatsoever. Carrying a bottle of sanitiser and wearing two masks on a trip to the grocery to buy milk was normal. Everything had changed, and not all of it was for the good. To go through this as a young adult who is waiting to experience her very Bollywood influenced college life, was, in a word, disappointing.

Forced to stay at home and unable to reach out to my relatives and friends, although many were barely 20 minutes away by road, left me frustrated and tired. However, I found solace in video calling them including my year-old baby niece, Maysa, sometimes up to 20 times a day.

I am one of those twentysomethings who isn’t really fond of children and loses interest as soon as they learn how to walk because that’s when the real struggle begins. But this kid completely captivated my heart and I found myself fawning over her, albeit virtually.

Finally, when the pandemic kind of abated, I decided to head off to my little niece’s house. I don’t want to brag but I would like to say that she is quite fond of me as well but that night, she was quite surprised to see people (a few relatives too had dropped by) other than her parents in her house. If hesitancy and uncertainty were written on her little face, on mine it was shock. How could she have forgotten her aunt whom she had been seeing on video calls for more than a couple of months, I wondered.

Agreed she was barely a year old, but I’d been talking to her on video calls so often. So, was it because I entered sporting a mask?

It took me a few moments to realise that my niece and I grew up very differently although in the same century. More than being a young adult during a pandemic, I realised that day it was much worse to be a child born into the pandemic. Let me explain.

Recently, when Maysa and her family visited us, I decided to take her for a short outing in a nearby park.

Maysa’s parents had brought along her stroller and I was expected to ensure she remained in it all through our outing- not run around, tumble, sit or touch anything.

Her parents did not want to take any chances with the virus, so had left strict instructions that she could not interact freely with other kids. The mask on my face was enough reminder of a currently existing pandemic but the image of her seated in her stroller, devoid of any physical interaction, watching other grown up kids running around and playing was truly sad.

I thanked God for letting me be a young adult rather than a child during the pandemic.

I don’t remember much from when I was a toddler but I can say that my child self had more freedom than my niece has today. It hurts to see her not be able to go to the park or feel the sun on her skin or roll on the grass and play with other children.

Physical and sensory interactions are important for a child’s growth and that is something she can’t experience well. I remember myself on my brother’s bicycle, on swings and slides, feeling the wind as I ran and touched anything and everything even if somethings were disgusting.

I couldn’t imagine my child self wearing a mask and stuck in a stroller. Especially when my parents claim that I had borderline ADHD.

Whenever Maysa has her mask on, there is already an evident difference in how she behaves- she is less playful, quiet, conscious and I would like to add from what I observed, restricted.

I know the maskless Maysa is anything but.

Even when I imagined myself as her cool aunt who is on trend with everything, I struggle to understand a part of her that her childhood experiences have molded her into.

Regardless, spending time with her makes everything worth it and I would very much love for her to be healthy and happy even if she has to miss out on a lot.

That’s the point, we are going to miss out on a lot, but that’s not going to stop us from becoming who we want to be and who we are.

During this pandemic, we have to give up on a lot and it might seem unreasonable at times but in the end, it is all worth it.

If Maysa ever gets a chance to take a look into my childhood, she will be jealous of baby Ayisha. And to be honest, so am I.

Ayisha is a university student skilled in the fine art of risk-taking. She loves nothing more than cats and taking naps.