COVID-19 has left profound social and economic consequences around the globe. Labeled by the UN Secretary General as the worst global crisis since World War II, COVID is not only a health crisis affecting every country in the world, but also a major learning, cultural and economic crisis. The spread of the disease brought a disastrous impact on vulnerable communities around the world, exacerbating profound and latent inequalities as well as social mistrust in societies. The impact of the health crisis in youth has been tremendous. They are amongst the most vulnerable to the effects of this pandemic, with many at risk of being left behind at this crucial stage of their life development.
According to the UN report on World Population Prospects in 2019, there were 1.2 billion youth aged 15-24 years worldwide, accounting for 16 percent of the global population. Estimates indicate that the youth world population would reach 850 million by 2050 with Africa’s youth population set to double, making up the largest share of young people in the world.
Some 1 billion students and youth across the planet, over 60% of the world’s learners, have been affected by school and university closures. UNESCO recently launched The Global Education Coalition to facilitate inclusive learning opportunities, and it keeps track on school and university closures. Many children and youth are also deprived of, sometimes, the only free meal of the day. Young women and girls are also more likely to experience violence and exploitation, with subsequent increase of teenage pregnancies, early marriages and sexual exploitation.
“We are stepping up on our global response by creating a coalition to ensure a fast and coordinated response. Beyond meeting immediate needs, this effort is an opportunity to rethink education, scale-up distance learning and make education systems more resilient, open and innovative,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay during the opening of the Global Education Coalition.
Youth are also three times more likely to be unemployed compared to adults, with approximately 126 million young workers being at moderate to extreme risk of poverty and often over reliant on precarious contract conditions. The statistics of the International Labor Organization (ILO) draw a dark picture. While 77% of youth worldwide informally employed, in Sub-Saharan Africa this can reach up to 96%, with young women occupying the most vulnerable and lowest-paid jobs. The COVID crisis has also shown how often youth are excluded from their own healthcare systems as precarious work conditions preclude healthcare access to young people.
Within the epidemic health context, young migrants and refugees, adolescent girls and young women, indigenous and ethnic minorities, youth with disabilities, LGBT youth, youth without safe housing, homeless youth or living in rural areas are amongst the most vulnerable groups. Under such circumstances, all these profound inequalities, coupled with demographic dividend, overreliance on the informal sector and high unemployment rates may lead to a dangerous outcome, if without access to quality education, access to jobs and lifelong learning skills development.
Youth leading the way
In light of the COVID-19 context, youth have emerged as leading agents of communities’ responses worldwide. In fact, since the onset of the crisis youth did not act as mere spectators and disempowered citizens but on the contrary, they reacted as front-line responders, tackling the spread of the virus and mitigating the many consequences of the pandemic. COVID, therefore, has worked as a “real case” scenario for youth’s resourcefulness, creativity and fervor.
This mitigating and advocacy role played by young women and men in mitigating risks and reaching out to their communities during disasters, conflicts or other emergencies had already been recognized in the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, where a group of international and local NGOs, youth networks and private sector actors launched the Global Compact for Young People in Humanitarian Action.
As the health crisis continues to spread globally, there are some remarkable youth-led initiatives worth mentioning in the fight against coronavirus. In Africa, continent home to the largest number of youth worldwide, young innovators are launching initiatives to support their communities in different ways.
Handwashing, a luxury for many communities around the world, has become one of the fundamental needs and drivers of the youth responses against COVID. For instance, in Ghana, young engineer Ricard Kwarteng invented a hand-washing sink powered by solar energy, recycling a barrel, which pours out soap upon detection of human hands to attract people to wash their hands. Another remarkable example is that of a young scientist in Cote d’Ivoire which contributed to the development of a hand sanitizer associated with an awareness campaign translated in seven local languages to stop fake news.
Youth were also highly mobilized in the production of equipment such as ventilators and respirators on their national responses. For instance, the National School of Sousse in Tunisia manufactured respirators and resuscitators, printing 3D protective masks for medical staff and hospitalized patients with coronavirus. Many youths have also brought innovation into COVID national responses, designing apps and technological solutions. In Nigeria, a youth driven technology innovation hub called the Co-creation Hub, partnered with the African CDC to develop innovative communication-related apps focused on the delivery of vetted information in various African languages.
During the COVID response, youth also took the lead in fighting against disinformation and misinformation, as well as in spreading preventive measures. An emblematic example comes from South Africa, where a youth choir known for reaching the finale of America’s Got Talent in 2019, composed, performed and filmed a musical rendition of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) coronavirus safety advice.
UNESCO’s supporting youth responses
As the pandemic continues to unfold, UNESCO, as the UN Agency leading on youth issues, has been promoting several webinars on unleashing the power of youth, creating an experience-sharing platform for youth on youth-led innovative solutions tackling the COVID pandemic. To support young innovators, UNESCO is mobilizing its networks and building partnerships with mobile and technological companies to build projects together with regional partners. Working with civil society organizations empowers African youth.
“The #SportsAgainstCOVID19 was first designed as a very local intervention, but our partnership with UNESCO changed our scope to become continental, and opened doors for other partners to join us”, said Ekene Johnpaul Ikwele, Chairperson of the Pan-African Youth Network for a Culture of Peace
“It was so surreal, I remember wondering how something so small at the beginning, had become so big and I’m super grateful for the co-designing component of the intervention with UNESCO”, he describes the partnership. Him, and many other representatives from various stakeholders have participated in a number of webinars, also organized by UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector, to find ways to improve the life of young women and men.
UNESCO is also engaging with governments to support youth involvement in their national response and advocating for dedicated funds to help young entrepreneurs to scale up their inventions.
Lastly, UNESCO is leveraging its partnership with youth-led networks in the areas of disaster risk reduction, supporting their work through UNESCO’s country field offices by making the liaison with other crucial partners such as other UN agencies or the private sector and disseminating their ideas and innovative projects.