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COVID-19 and young people: urgent action needed to stem ‘severe and long-lasting’ impacts

14 August 2020

The ‘systematic, deep and disproportionate impact’ of COVID-19 on youth has been highlighted in a new study issued on the occasion of International Youth Day.

According to the study, based on findings from the Global Survey on Youth and COVID-19, young women, younger youth and youth in lower-income countries have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic.

The study was conducted in April and May 2020 by UN Human Rights, together with the International Labor Organization and other partners. Some 12,000 responses from young people aged 18-29 were received from 112 countries.

Speaking at an online event to launch the study, Todd Howland, Chief of the Development, Economic and Social Issues branch of UN Human Rights said: “Hardly anybody alive today has lived their youth during a global pandemic. This crisis has served as a magnifying glass, bringing underlying issues for young people to the forefront. I sincerely hope that this will be the last and most significant crisis during your lifetime.”

Young people’s human rights under threat

According to the study, the knock-on effects of strict stay-at-home measures in many countries have had a clear impact on young people’s access to rights, particularly as freedom of movement has been restricted around the globe.

Respondents were asked about the effect of COVID-19 on their right to participation in public affairs or in peaceful protests. One-third noticed a significant impact on this right, especially as last year’s wave of demonstrations led by young people had been brought to an abrupt halt with the onset of the pandemic. While online initiatives are now frequently used to give young people a voice, unequal internet access means many do not have this option.

A lack of access to housing was another issue raised in the study. Almost one in three who had stopped working due to the pandemic reported that their right to housing had been affected.

Twenty-seven percent of youth respondents also reported an impact on their right to practice freedom of religion or belief, felt more substantially by youth in lower income countries.

The right to leisure, according to the study, was more markedly affected than any other right. For 68 percent of respondents, ‘significant limitations’ were reported on recreational activities, including meeting up with friends and pursuing sport and cultural interests.

Finally, nearly one in four young people (24%) reported a significant impact on their right to access to information. However, with misinformation rampant throughout the pandemic, including on social media, many young people across the globe have channeled their creativity into countering its spread by helping to raise awareness in their communities.

“I am fighting against the spread of misinformation and fake news about COVID-19,” said Nikhat Akhtarp from India, one of the respondents. “I am telling my friends and family to be human and to spread love and kindness to our health and safety workers: our doctors, police, sanitation workers and any worker battling on the COVID-19 frontlines.”

Severe impact of COVID-19 on education and employment of young people

The pandemic has created ‘devastating effects’ on the education and training of young people, according to the study. Over 70 percent of youth who study have been adversely affected by the closing of schools, universities and training centres, with some 65 percent of young people reporting having learnt less since the pandemic’s onset.

Young workers have also felt the heavy toll of COVID-19’s influence on the employment sector: one in six employed before the pandemic have stopped working; and for those who remain employed, working hours have fallen on average by 23 percent. Some 41% of young people have had their income reduced. The impacts are more severe among younger age groups, with nearly one quarter of youth aged 18-24 reporting that they stopped working.

‘Deterioration’ in young people’s mental well-being

COVID-19 has caused major disruption to learning and employment, and consequently, many young people have experienced a notable decline in their mental health.

According to the study, nearly one in five are ‘probably affected’ by anxiety or depression, with the lowest levels of mental well-being recorded among young women and younger youth aged 18-24.

Youth voices and action crucial to ‘build back better’

Despite the major impacts of COVID-19 being felt by youth worldwide, the study revealed that youth are actively participating in social activism, with 31 percent volunteering, and 27% making donations towards the pandemic response.

To amplify youth voices and action, the study is calling for ‘urgent, targeted and smarter’ investments in decent jobs for youth, in the protection of young people’s human rights, employment and training programmes, social protection and unemployment benefits, and stronger mental health support.

Howland agreed that youth voices are critical, urging young people to stand up for their rights and hold decision makers accountable to ensure youth human rights are prioritised in the pandemic recovery process, and afterwards. “Do not underestimate yourselves,” he said. “You have a stake not only in the future, but also in the present, and you have a right to influence the decisions that affect your lives.”

  • I will respect your rights regardless of who you are. I will uphold your rights even when I disagree with you
  • When anyone’s human rights are denied, everyone's rights are undermined, so I will stand up
  • I will raise my voice. I will take action. I will use my rights to stand up for your rights.

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