TACOMA, Washington — The coronavirus has acquired a well-deserved reputation as a disease primarily threatening the elderly. Yet young people have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s secondary impacts: 1.6 billion children have been affected by school closures, youth are most vulnerable to disruptions in mental health services and young workers will lose the most opportunities due to the global economic downturn. But young people across the globe are also playing a key role in the pandemic response through youth-led organizations and working to build a better world after the virus. In doing so, they have demonstrated a resilience that is essential in today’s challenging global climate.
Building Resilience from the Ground Up
When youth-led organizations surveyed their countries’ preparedness at the onset of the pandemic, they saw economic and social frameworks that were ill-prepared for a crisis. The Global State of Youth Civil Society report, a youth-led research initiative to discover how young people responded to the pandemic, pointed to crowded living conditions and environmental factors such as droughts and monsoons as additional impediments to virus responses. In developing countries such as Brazil, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, governments were unable to deliver sufficient aid to vulnerable communities.
Luckily, youth initiatives around the world stepped up to fill the vacuum. For example, the Al-Hasan Volunteer Network, a Malaysian organization that sponsors social and educational projects for refugees, has doubled down on its efforts since the pandemic began by delivering food parcels and crowdfunding to pay hospital fees. The network was founded in 2016 by Hasan Al-Akraa, a 20-year old Syrian refugee who arrived in Malaysia at age 12. Al-Akraa told Amnesty International that the pandemic was equivalent to “double trouble” for those who had already been struggling and that he could not ignore the suffering around him.
Elsewhere in Asia, social media has catalyzed the response of youth activists. After a teenage girl in rural China attempted to kill herself because of an inability to access online schooling, word of her plight spread on Weibo, a popular social media platform. Chen Kaijun, a young Chinese woman, saw the social media posts and decided to found Project Guangyuan, or “Light Aid.” Established to help narrow the digital divide preventing many Chinese schoolchildren from successfully learning remotely, the project garnered more than 1,000 donations of used electronic devices in its first month of operation. Kaijun and her partners used WeChat, another popular social media platform, to recruit over 400 volunteers and develop partnerships with public and private organizations.
Kaijun and Al-Akraa, whose volunteer work began in refugee schools, demonstrate the power of youth assisting youth. Additionally, the fact that their organizations are localized, grassroots efforts reveal another advantage of youth mobilization: Young people can cater their activism to their communities’ specific needs and need little outside assistance. As Chen told We Are Restless, a blog empowering youth voices, youth organizing “does not require a lot of resources… to gain momentum.” Currently, young people’s momentum portends not only an improved pandemic response but also more inclusive societies in a post-pandemic world.
Keeping Inclusiveness in Mind
Marginalized groups have also been scapegoated by governments enforcing lockdowns, but such actions have not escaped the ire of young activists. Despite housing hundreds of thousands of refugees like Hasan Al-Akraa, Malaysia has not ratified the U.N. refugee convention and it is illegal for refugees to work in the country. Police conducted a series of immigration raids in May that resulted in 2,200 migrants being sent to crowded detention centers, some of which have since become hotbeds of COVID-19. Heidy Quah, the 26-year-old founder of a refugee aid organization, has called attention over social media to the lackluster conditions within detention centers. Quah has faced intense backlash from other citizens and the Malaysian police, but she has continued to speak out against the depravity around her.
Youth-Led Organizations: Beyond Their Years
With tireless advocates such as Hasan Al-Akraa, Chen Kaijun and Heidy Quah defying traditional age barriers and making a difference in their communities, there is hope for the developing world. Over the next 30 years, the youth population of the world’s 47 least developed countries is projected to increase by 62%, from 207 million to 336 million. The median age in Africa is 20. Therefore, the past eight months have elucidated a lesson that should continue to ring true in the coming years: with great youth comes great opportunity.
– Jack Silvers