Generation pandemic: Why leaders must include youth in coronavirus response

Young, Malian activist Adam sits holding a mask

Photo: Xavier Thera/Oxfam. Adam is a young Malian activist and one of our Sahel Superheroes.

Blog by Sagal Ali and Raina Fox
Published: 11th August 2020

It’s a dangerous time to be young. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, 1.52 billion youth are out of school and university – 87% of the world’s student population –interrupting their academic, social and behavioral development. 1 in 4 young people faces conflict and violence on top of the pandemic, and hunger and unemployment are at staggering highs. Girls and young women are particularly vulnerable, with women on the frontlines making up 70% of the global health workforce while taking on the majority of unpaid care duties, and gender-based violence, child labor and child marriage are on the rise. Meanwhile, young people could be left to pick up the pieces of a post-Covid recovery that prioritizes corporations and outdated economic models over people and planet. In short, the Coronavirus pandemic is already rolling back advances towards gender justice, stunting young peoples' personal and professional growth, magnifying existing inequalities and scarring a generation for a lifetime of physical, emotional, economic, social, and environmental challenges.

So if young people will be continuing to bear the brunt of the pandemic for the rest of their lives, why are they being systemically left out of policymaking decisions now? As UN Secretary General António Guterres noted,“the world cannot afford a lost generation of youth, their lives set back by COVID-19 and their voices stifled by a lack of participation.” Yet even before Covid-19 only 2.2 percent of parliamentarians worldwide were under the age of 30, and though in a third of countries the qualifying age to run is 25, the global average age of a parliamentarian is 53–and only 19% are women. With the majority of politicians comprised of relatively wealthy, educated, middle-aged to senior men of the dominant ethnicity, young people of all identities and backgrounds struggle to get a foot in the door. As a result, young peoples’ experiences, agendas, and visions are acutely underrepresented in the policies that will ultimately govern their lives.

Yet this does not mean youth are disengaged from global issues; quite the contrary. Faced with a planet and future in crisis, millions of youth climate activists have taken to the streets and social media to demand world leaders take action to stop climate change. Young people have led Black Lives Matter actions across the globe to protest incidents of police brutality and racially-motivated violence against Black people. Youth activists were poised to hold global leaders accountable for their climate commitments at the 26th UN Climate Conference in November and redouble efforts to ensure youth are recognized as essential partners in peacebuilding and conflict prevention on the 5th anniversary of the ground-breaking 2015 UN Resolution 2250. And at the local level, youth have always played key roles in moments of crisis –during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, youth acted as communicators, contact tracers, health workers, community organizers and caregivers.

Youth activist Munjur Rahman Shakib holding paint pot

Photo: Rekha Khatun. Munjur Rahman Shakib is a youth activist in Bangladesh

So it should be no surprise that young people are already on the ground leading coronavirus response in communities across the globe. Adam, a young activist supported by Oxfam in Mali, founded the Association of Youth for Active Citizenship and Democracy (AJCAD) to support displaced persons and destitute children. Since the onset of the pandemic, she has used web TV and social media to raise awareness of the disease and proper hygiene to prevent it. In rural Bangladesh, young people affiliated with Oxfam’s Empower Youth for Work program have been distributing masks, leaflets, food, and hygiene products; broadcasting health messages from loudspeakers on vans; encouraging quarantine; cleaning public spaces, and coordinating efforts with local administrators.Students at Edo Bits School in Edo State, Nigeria are designing a mobile application (The Stay Safeapp) to share information about Covid-19, reinforce hygiene practices, and track public places visited to support contact tracing. Young Palestinian refugees in the Aida and Azza camps in Bethlehem, who had received community health training to address diabetes, pivoted to create a video and pamphlets about COVID-19 prevention.

Young people have already risen to the challenges of the pandemic, responding directly to health and other needs, innovating solutions, and imagining better futures. They deserve to have these experiences respected and included. 

On International Youth Day 2020, Oxfam calls for a transformation of the current unequal power structures that inhibit the advancement of youth rights and gender equality, into more equitable social, economic and political relations. We believe that a youth-inclusive Covid-19 response and recovery should include three essential components:

  1. Recognize, engage and include young people as leaders and equal partners, protecting their human rights and basic freedoms.
  2. Ensure a just and sustainable recovery that invests in education that is inclusive and accessible.
  3. Support young people’s mental health and incentivize youth-led action.

We seek a world in which young people's rights and needs are understood and respected, and young people in all their diversity lead and participate in decision making that affects their lives and communities. The coronavirus is already transforming the world - let's choose to direct that transformation towards greater justice for all.

About the authors

Sagal Ali is a Campaigner with Youth Active Citizens and the Work In Progress Project, supporting Oxfam’s influencing work in Nigeria, Somalia and Egypt with Oxfam Novib. She grew up in the UK and is now based in the Hague, The Netherlands.

Raina Fox is Coordinator of the Coronavirus Influencing Group with Oxfam America and Oxfam International, based in Boston, USA. She has worked for over a decade to elevate youth leadership and civic participation with the UNDP, UN Academic Impact + Millennium Campus Network and more and has published about gender, youth, and peace in blogs and journals.