Young people around the world remain optimistic that an inclusive, resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is possible. With creativity and dedication, they are helping develop solutions to make sure communities emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.

COVID-19 may have taken the most serious physical toll on older patients, but it is young people who have experienced the brunt of the pandemic’s impact worldwide.

“Young people are less at risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19 but will be the most affected by the long-term consequences of the pandemic, which will shape the world they live and work in for decades to come,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, students are back to learning in a classroom with friends and exercising vigilance during the pandemic. Photo: Chansereypich Seng/ UNICEF

Stay-at-home policies and social distancing measures have interrupted youth education, made it difficult to retain or find employment, and led to an increase in mental health conditions. Many children are not progressing in school, with 101 million falling behind on reading proficiency in 2020, threatening two decades of gains in education. In the same year, global adult employment fell by 3.7%, while youth employment declined by 8.7%. The unemployment figures for young women are even more bleak, and they face additional, unique challenges, including increased vulnerability to domestic violence and child marriage.

CHANNELING YOUTH ENERGIES

Yet, despite these troubling trends, young people have also been an energetic force at the forefront of developing creative solutions to an inclusive, sustainable pandemic recovery. Seeing these efforts, the WHO has been working on integrating youth into its work and policies. Leading this initiative is Diah Saminarsih, the Director-General’s Senior Adviser on Gender and Youth. Since 2018, she has been responsible for exploring how WHO can better serve young people, and how they, in turn, can contribute to the mission of the organization.

“I would like young people to have a role in every possible element that exists: advocacy, policymaking, research and science, sexual and reproductive health, gender — across every possible angle,” she says. 

Ms. Saminarsih points out that youth initiatives are often narrowly focused on a homogenous definition of the demographic or on single issues such as unemployment. She’d like WHO’s approach to be more holistic and inclusive, positioning young people as equal partners to better enable a “transfer of wisdom” within the organization. During the pandemic, she and her team started putting this vision to the test by developing and launching the WHO Youth Council. While many of WHO’s various departments have youth-focused initiatives, the Council serves as an umbrella to house them all.

It brings together young people from both health and non-health backgrounds to provide guidance to the Director-General on issues that affect and matter to them. Members of the Council will meet several times a year, with their work culminating in a WHO Youth Engagement Strategy.

“The pandemic has shown us that young people are very resilient,” Ms. Saminarsih said. “I hope that the Youth Council can lead to inclusion of youth in national policymaking processes. That will make it even more tangible.”

SOLUTIONS FOR YOUTH, BY YOUTH

Alongside the launch of the Youth Council, WHO announced the creation of Global Youth Mobilization (GYM), an initiative to invest in and replicate youth solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. In partnership with the UN Foundation and the Big 6 Youth Organizations — which alone engage more than 250 million young people — and with support from the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, the movement convened a Global Youth Summit in April 2021 to reflect on the pandemic from a youth lens.

“Joining forces with the Big 6 and the United Nations Foundation provides WHO and the world a unique opportunity to learn from hundreds of millions of young people and be guided by their sustainable solutions to help communities build back better from the pandemic,” Dr. Tedros said.

The three-day event brought together young people as well as policymakers from over 150 countries to discuss their experiences and proposed solutions to multiple issues, among them disrupted formal and informal education, the glaring inequalities that the pandemic has exposed, physical and mental well-being, and how to enter a changing labor market. For Global Youth Mobilization board member Tharindra Arumapperuma, what made the conversations and solutions at the summit stand out was that they were specific to local contexts. Instead of copy pasting approaches from other countries, young people were embracing the diversity and nuances of their local contexts to create innovations that would ensure sustainability.

“Young people often feel trapped in a system which was created for them by adults, but they did not really get an opportunity to speak for what they need in the implementation stage,” she said. “If we don’t focus on young people at the right time, we might actually miss molding an environment for young people to thrive in.”

The summit ended with a challenge for youth participants to submit their own local innovative solutions for an opportunity to win $500 to $5,000 in funding. Each of the Big 6 youth organizations also received GYM grants of $200,000 to fund national projects. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, for example, is supporting a project in Lebanon that is developing and renovating green spaces in Beirut and surrounding areas. The goal is to offer the community a safe place to relax and take refuge from the negative impacts of the pandemic. Another project, funded by the World YMCA, will support the educational and professional development of young people in Peru, provide them with skills training, and deter them from dropping out of school.

“Innovation is of most value when it benefits everyone, especially the most disadvantaged,” Dr. Tedros said in a recent conversation with youth innovators. “WHO will continue engaging with young people around the world, and we hope others will support these brave, creative young people so that together we deliver health for all.”

 

This piece also appears on who.int.

Featured Photo: Miléquêm Diarassouba/ UNICEF