When the COVID-19 pandemic started taking its toll on Europe (and the world) in early 2020, the response of most countries was to introduce lockdown, send people home and ask them to stay there. Travelling soon became a distant dream, students moved to virtual classrooms and working remotely was no longer reserved for just the so-called digital nomads. Everyone suddenly found themselves in this new global reality in which the best thing they could do was nothing in order to stop the spread of the virus.
“Even though young people and youth organisations were among the first responders to the crisis in their local communities, mobilising volunteers and providing other needed support, youth participation has been affected by the crisis. Activities encouraging youth participation have been suspended at local levels and it contributed to creating further social exclusion among young people” according to the European Youth Blueprint to Recovery (YFJ, June 2020).
Not all young people in Europe, however, just sat down in lockdown waiting for it to be over. Instead, they showed initiative to cope with this pandemic, be it helping their older neighbours in the local community, or organising online events at a global level. Just because they were told to maintain social distance or stay at home, it did not mean they stopped caring about issues such as climate change or racism. On the contrary, the pandemic has affected youth participation from the perspective of new approaches that emerged from young people themselves, and even though it might have affected the traditional forms of participation, it seems to have created an opportunity for an innovative approach to youth participation.
“During lockdown I got a lot more involved in youth activism, particularly through my local youth council” says Adam Lambe, a 17-year-old from Monaghan County in Ireland. “Lockdown was difficult but instead of switching off I sprang into action by working with young people in my locality to publish resources like helpline numbers and provide COVID-19 advice to young people to keep them informed and help support them through this difficult time.”
While gatherings were possible, even though they were advised against, Adam also joined an anti-racism demonstration organised by a group called Monaghan against racism to hold a socially distanced strike to raise awareness of institutional and social racism and to bring attention to the asylum seeking system in Ireland, that, according to them, is flawed. In this way, young people in rural Ireland also wanted to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement that was heating up on the other side of the Atlantic, and deemed it worthy to do in spite of the pandemic.
Adam’s peers in Austria from the school student union (AKS), moved their activism to the online sphere, but also with the idea of joining a global movement and building stronger international solidarity through their #schoolworldwide campaign. They found advantages in online participation because it allowed them to discover new ways of connecting school students, not only throughout the country, but also around Europe. Alexandra Seybal, a 20-year-old activist, emphasises “the importance of international solidarity in times when everyone is preaching social distancing, that we tried to transform into only physical distancing”. They were joined by students from other countries, like Bosnia & Herzegovina, to talk about needed improvements in schools and the role of education in bringing about change.
According to “Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic” (UK Household Longitudinal Study, July 2020) the effects on young people were especially troubling to see. Some young people were vulnerable to social isolation and were badly affected by being withdrawn from school. They may have lost oversight of their wellbeing by teachers and other responsible adults, as well as access to regular meals and peer support from friends.
Peer support was exactly what 18-year-old Rafaela Nunes from Portugal was giving through her involvement in the project called “My neighbourhood, my city”, supporting students in a lower social-economic neighbourhood with their studies online. She was not only helping with school work, but also providing emotional support and helping them cope with all the changes in their lives. “I loved doing this. I was only sorry I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye when the project ended in June”, says Rafaela, while preparing for the first post-lockdown school strike for climate change that she is leading in her hometown.
In a municipality on the opposite side of Europe, Nykarleby in Finland, another young Portuguese activist, 18-year-old David Cardoso, found himself in lockdown while doing his European Solidarity Corps project. It did not make his volunteering any less interesting or busy for that matter. “We had to push a lot from our heads”, says David, while trying to explain how the pandemic forced them to be creative. “I had many “lockdown tasks”, but I invested most of my time in the “sHOMEthing every day” initiative.” For two months they posted content every day on the social media channels of the municipality in order to keep young people informed and engaged.
“Empowering citizens to critically analyse information online is key to addressing disinformation. These challenges are better answered if society is aware of the dangers of disinformation and misinformation. Particular attention should be paid to vulnerable groups, for example young people and children, who face a higher risk of being misled” (Tackling COVID-19 disinformation – Getting the facts right – European Commission)
Similarly to what David was doing in Finland, two friends from Serbia, Jelena Branković, 20 and Sunčica Drobnjaković, 21, organised “COllision VIDcon”, an online conference on Instagram live, with the aim to help their peers improve their knowledge about the virus and distinguish fake news from fact-based information, all the while empowering them not to give up on their ideas and everyday projects.
“COllision VIDcon was a perfect example of how social media should be used for making an impact and educating people through discussing the fake news that the media was swarmed with. Seeing that Sunčica was studying in Italy at the time, she was capable of distinguishing the differences between the situation the media portrayed and the situation that was really happening over there”, they underline. Following the project, the activists received multiple messages from their peers saying just how much a single session of “COllision VIDcon” meant to them.
All these and many other stories go to show that youth participation in COVID times certainly did not come without its challenges, but at the same time alternative forms and spaces of participation have emerged. Participation and activism have significantly shifted to the online world and social media, and young people, including those that might not necessarily participate in the “traditional” forms of participation, have been creative and active in trying to contribute to the society in one way or another during the pandemic.
“I believe my story is unique in the way my activism and engagement in society dramatically increased over the lockdown period and I think this shows that with determination you can excel in adverse situations. I want this story to instil motivation and a sense of self efficacy in young people, encouraging them to become active citizens” concludes Adam.
Can youth participation really alleviate the hardships of the pandemic? These young people seem to prove it can. At the same time, many more questions emerge. Are there enough mechanisms in place to encourage young people to take action and continue participating in this new reality? How prepared are youth workers, local authorities and civil society organisations to provide support and ensure inclusive spaces for meaningful youth participation in a pandemic? And even if so, can online activism really replace the power of young people coming together, taking the streets, occupying decision-making spaces? Can youth voices be heard as loudly through a computer speaker? It will probably take some time and reflection to properly understand all these issues and the overall impact of this pandemic on our lives, but one thing seems to already be clear: in times of crisis young people not only persevere but get creative, coming up with original ways to engage in society and giving a brand-new meaning to the concept of youth participation.