Children, adolescents and young adults have been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Young Gasteiner Wiebke Seemann writes in her guest contribution. Social differences have intensified, mental illness is increasingly widespread, and while the fear of the climate crisis has been overshadowed by the pandemic, it has not been eliminated.
A year ago, it was already visible that the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic will disproportionally hit younger generations, as they have lost educational and employment opportunities, lost social contacts, and also lost years of their childhood and youth. Increasingly, young people are also losing hope for the future and their trust in the solidarity of older generations. Has the pandemic created a “Corona generation” and what does the future hold for them?
Social differences have intensified
Updated figures on youth unemployment from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) show that the previously identified trend of young people being more affected by job losses than adults has continued and worsened. Young people in middle-income countries and especially young women have been hit hardest by this trend. While signs of recovery could be seen in some countries at the end of 2020, the trend is neither stable nor universal and the ILO concludes that all those who graduate during the pandemic can expect long-term wage losses.
Unsurprisingly, the number of young people being in neither employment nor education or training has likewise increased, as schools and universities have struggled to teach under COVID restrictions. Children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds have suffered even more than their peers and have fallen further behind both educationally and socially due to distance learning. Even if schools were to open as usual tomorrow, would children and their teachers be able to make up for those losses?
Neither the aftermath of the pandemic nor the climate crisis can be solved without empowering and hearing the voices of the young people.
Youth mental health emergency
But the impact of lockdowns and restrictions on children and young people has facets that are far grimmer than employment or educational setbacks. Many countries, as well as children’s rights organisations such as UNICEF, have observed an increase in the use of child helplines, owing to a situation where violence against children has become more frequent, but access to child protective services has been limited. Since the pandemic situation has not improved in the last year, it comes as no surprise that more young people have continued to report anxiety and depression and seek mental health treatment. And while COVID temporarily overshadowed the climate anxiety among young people, now both topics are at the forefront of our consciousness and make it all the more difficult to develop a hopeful outlook for the future.
Witnessing a slowdown in the uptake of vaccinations in many countries is also a source of frustration for younger people. Certainly, unequal access to and distribution of vaccines as well as vaccine hesitancy are issues that go far beyond the question of intergenerational solidarity. But it is also the case that many countries have reached a point where younger people especially need the protection of herd immunity against the next COVID wave. If lockdowns were a measure to protect the old, vaccination is now also a method to protect the young who cannot get the shot themselves.
A Corona generation?
The COVID-19 pandemic has left marks on everyone’s lives and has deepened injustices across all age groups. However, given the particular significance of this crisis on the future of Gen Z, we might also understand them as Gen C – Generation Corona – and it should remind the rest, from boomers to millennials, that we owe it to young people to play a greater role in developing solutions to the challenges they face. Neither the aftermath of the pandemic nor the climate crisis can be solved without empowering and hearing the voices of the young people and allocating resources to their needs and the issues they prioritise.
Wiebke Seemann has been a member of the Young Forum Gastein, the network for young European health professionals of the European Health Forum Gastein, since 2018. She works as a project manager in the Secretariat of the Northern Dimension Partnership in Public Health and Social Well-being (NDPHS). The NDPHS is a cooperation between ten governments, the European Commission and eight international organisations.