As we struggle to continue to understand, cope with and hopefully survive Covid-19, for the most part we are doing so within the confines of our homes, with very little human social interaction.
The direct impact of this can be that our natural concern for others is limited to self and immediate family survival.
While the struggle with lockdown may be a major challenge for some, including real personal risk – for example those at the mercy or lack of mercy of perpetrators of domestic violence, and for whom “lockdown” has been more like “lock up” – for others, although stressful, the experience has been far easier to cope with.
Adolescents have received much public attention as a distinct population, particularly in the media, regarding how they have behaved and dealt with the virus. This has ranged from some youth being portrayed as unsung heroes, because of their positive civic engagement in local communities, to other young people being seen as villains because of their ignoring public health advice, mixing with others, socialising and house partying.
The reality and norm, of course, lies somewhere between the two extremes. This reality, that the vast majority of young people just like the adult population, have behaved totally responsibly with regard to what was expected during the pandemic will not get much attention.
However, the negative personal impact of living with the virus is only emerging and its cost is being viewed in very local, linear ways, within countries’ rural and/or urban contexts rather than across or between nations.
Similarly, there has been little or no international sharing or comparison of the differing social and human impact.
Currently working as co-principal investigator on a Unesco global study on the impact of the pandemic on youth, I have been privileged but also a little overwhelmed in gaining insight and access to the stories of young people from around the world in relation to their plight resulting from this pandemic.
Just as all social adversities are relative, for example one’s experience of poverty, and this limits our understanding of others’ experiences, it may be only by viewing through a wider lens that we can enable compassion and empathy between nations and their peoples.
In this current Unesco study, we can learn to understand the wider impact of Covid-19 on youth populations on a wider scale and in a broader landscape.
The same pandemic is there for all youth, but it has differing impact.
For example, through the work of foundations such as the Making a Difference (MAD) Foundation, a youth-led NGO in South Africa that works to enable education for marginalised youth, we can see how Covid-19 for a young person living in an already overcrowded township in poverty with HIV-Aids where social distancing is impossible, brings further real personal stress and struggle.
Or, through this study, how in Myanmar – which fluctuates in and out of violent revolution and is often war torn – being a Rohingya youth living on the border with Bangladesh trying to protect your older family members from forced migration, the further risk of contracting the disease is a very real threat to safety.
In a further context we can see that for youth from the Yemen living in ongoing extreme and life-threatening poverty, the arrival of Covid-19 has made living within a constant crisis is even more difficult.
While these adverse life conditions and human experiences, complicated by the presence of Covid-19, are very real and disconcerting, youth in Ireland, albeit in dissimilar ways, are also suffering because of the crisis, not least in their mental health and ongoing lack of social nutrition.
But it is no harm to be hopeful as well and to be mindful of youth’s innate resilience. We know from research evidence what the recipe is for a successful passage through adolescence for any young person living anywhere.
We know that if a young person can have reasonable life-conditions with adequate basic wealth, access to education, safe and supportive families and schools, with well-intended and responsive friends, their life opportunities and prospects rise considerably.
In order for us as nations to enable any of this for our youth populations, we have first to name it and recognise it and act for the social good of others, or, more simply, be empathetic.