‘Building Back Better’: Youth, Risk and Resilience in the coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

Photo: Freepik Premium
Photo: Freepik Premium

The COVID-19 pandemic – as well as the governmental and societal responses to it – feed into, feed off, and trigger pre-existing local, national, and global patterns of inequality and exclusion. Unsurprisingly, these responses have also had generational and gendered manifestations. The profile of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact, provides a powerful mirror image of the interconnected structural ‘violence of exclusion’ that young women and men described so powerfully through The Missing Peace: Independent Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the responses to it, illustrate and amplify precisely the same intersectoral experiences of exclusion and vulnerability described by young people in the Missing Peace study. This includes:

  • Political exclusion, marginalization, and powerlessness in the policy arenas that impact the lives of young women and men, including specifically in response to the virus. This impact reaches well beyond formal politics and the myriad of local and national elections that have been suspended or postponed due to the pandemic. Young people – and particularly young men – are increasingly exposed to the vagaries of the criminal justice system, and to the disproportionate attention to them by state security forces, through curfews, states of emergency, and enforced lock-downs.

The creativity and innovation of young people should take center stage in shaping the discussions on how we build-back-better in response to COVID-19 @Simpson_YPS & @atomicsentences #C19ConflictMonitor

In the name of regulating the spread of the virus itself, as well as viral misinformation, for many governments the COVID-19 pandemic has been an opportunistic moment for governments to use emergency powers limiting fundamental civic and political rights of association, assembly, expression and organization, and often violently repressing vibrant youth-driven social movements and opposition groups.

Yet evidence indicates that such simplistic assumptions regarding youth and violence often produce unnuanced policy approaches which alienate young people and widen the mistrust between them and their governments or multilateral institutions. These recycled policy myths also yield counterproductive policy responses, skewing programmatic priorities towards hard-security approaches in the policing of the pandemic. The disproportionate impact on young people in the policing of the pandemic, thus undermines the civic trust and social cohesion so necessary to tackling the pandemic and building more resilient societies.

  • Differential and fragile access to services such as healthcare, education, childcare, as well as marginal access to housing, social and civic space, and recreational facilities, exacerbate the youth experience of COVID-19. Because of the pandemic, it was estimated that in April 2020, more than 1.5 billion children in 186 countries suddenly stopped going to school. Schools and educational institutions, instead of serving as places of social cohesion and community belonging, are viewed as high risk sites of “community transmission” of the virus.
  • COVID-19 has also exposed new manifestations of inequality within and beyond education systems, as a result of the digital divide and differential access to the contested world of cyberspace – including both the audibility it promises, and the viral disinformation it may foster. The shift to virtual and online social relationships presents multiple and diverse problems for young women and men, including deeper threats to the cybersecurity of youth, cybercrime against young people, and new mental health and psycho-social challenges associated with online life.
  • Intergenerational dimensions to the pandemic in which older people are particularly vulnerable, but youth – considered to be a comparatively low risk category from a health perspective – bear a massive burden of responsibility for preventing harm, protecting the interests, and inheriting the debt bequeathed by the older generation. Yet they bear a heavy burden in risk reduction. In addition to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had in exacerbating the lack of access to decent jobs for young people and the adjournment or loss of educational opportunities, this has in turn also had consequences in the suspended transitions to adulthood (delayed processes of ‘waithood’ – and even “date-hood”) experienced by many young men and women.
  • Gendered patterns of exclusion have played themselves out in all these arenas. The distinct experiences of young women include their particular vulnerability to gender-based violence during the pandemic, but they are also disproportionately impacted by their political exclusion, economic disempowerment, educational marginalization, lack of digital access, etc.

At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis also offers up a myriad of extraordinary illustrations of innovation and resilience in the manners in which young women and men have responded to the crisis in their communities and their societies. Although “young people are not invincible” in the face of the virus, evidence that they are less physically vulnerable to its health effects than older age cohorts, has made young people “an important resource in mitigating risks, and community outreach in this crisis”. Their leadership in driving humanitarian responses, countering misinformation online, and supporting their communities with food, the production of masks, etc., are all well documented illustrations of their adaptive resilience.

Meaningful as they are, such palliative or remedial forms of youth resilience don’t inherently address the pre-existing and underlying fissures that the public health crisis has animated in the lived experiences of young women and men. The innovation, creativity and even the protest and dissent of youth-led social movements in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, reflects the importance of not just ‘bouncing back’ to the pre-existing circumstances, but instead ‘building back better’ in the aspiration to use the crisis to challenge and address the underlying causes of its unequal impact. Beyond just palliative or adaptive resilient responses to the health crisis, youth movements therefore offer an important window on more transformative forms of resilience in relation to the underlying structures of inequality and exclusion laid bare by the pandemic. In this respect, the creativity and innovation of young people should arguably take center stage in shaping the discussions on how we build-back-better.

This should not translate into a romanticization of positive youth resilience as a universal response to the pandemic. Indeed, in the absence of available channels for the positive expression of resilience – and even where these may exist – there is the potential that resilience may manifest in either positive or negative forms. The latter may drive young people into alternative places of belonging, various forms of anti-social behaviour, participation in illicit economies, etc., which may foster rather than prevent conflict. This makes it all the more important to foster meaningful youth inclusion rather than closing down their civic space, so as to harness, sustain and invest in positive manifestations of resilience on one hand, while also inhibiting, neutralizing or co-opting the negative manifestations on the other.

The description of young people’s lived experiences of COVID-19 and the responses of young people also emulates the reciprocal mistrust they experience in both their communities and in relation to their governments. Many of the strategies that are articulated as solutions in the YPS agenda – strategies around inclusion, investment in resilience, and partnerships – offer unique and powerful solutions for sustaining peace in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic – in both addressing the risks of conflict, and committing to the transformative resilience and resourcefulness of young people.

Graeme Simpson is the Principal Representative of Interpeace (NY) & Senior Peacebuilding Advisor, as well as the former Lead Author of the Independent Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security: The Missing Peace.

 Ali Altiok is the Youth, Peace and Security Project Officer at Interpeace. 

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