Photo courtesy of ADB

Young people from the ages of 16 to 35 around the world have been particularly hard hit by the effects of COVID-19. Discussions and forums targeting the wellbeing and development of youth have gained traction on various platforms.

Studies in several countries have found that young people are struggling to cope with the pandemic with elevated levels of stress, anxiety and depression that could be due in part to the difficulties they were experiencing in adapting to online education. We spoke to a few youth who represented disadvantaged and marginalized communities on the challenges they faced during the pandemic.

Yasal Samarajeewa, an undergraduate living with a visual impairment, pointed out that an university was a place of learning that went beyond the study of different subjects to include social aspects through association with fellow undergraduates from all walks of life. As a young person residing in Colombo, Yasal had been looking forward to getting to know new friends and experiencing the diversity of cultures and identities outside his school friends and close circles.

However, most of the young people we interviewed said they had more chances to interact closely with the family members during the lockdowns. Parents have been working from home and interacting with their children. Prior to the pandemic, young people were glued to their smartphones while other family members gathered around the television but the pandemic forced people to communicate whether they liked it or not.

The majority of young people have embraced this pandemic-inspired change but the experiences of those who identified as belonging to non-binary genders were different with domestic violence escalating during lockdowns, according to a social activist from the LGBTIQA community living in Colombo. The activist, who preferred not to disclose their name, talked about the hardships of coming out with their identity and the repressive and hostile reception they get from their families. In a pandemic situation, they were vulnerable even within the spaces they considered to be safe without being able to seek outside help whenever necessary. The LGBTIQA activist y pointed out that the delays of appointments with doctors whom they consulted for surgeries and psychotherapy sessions resulted in socio-economic and health concerns such as failure to receive government welfare support and COVID-19 vaccinations.

When it came to rural youth, experiences were different from those in Colombo. Dinesh Kavinda, a youth parliamentarian who is a small scale entrepreneur and a farmer in the Monaragala district, said that his community had to face multiple economic challenges because they could not find markets for harvests during the lockdown. Lack of transport, lack of access to technology and lack of government assistance have led them to bankruptcy. He was not happy with how the government distributed the Rs.5,000 for affected families in his community and the loan schemes introduced by government banks because there was no transparent criteria to provide the relief programmes. He mentioned that some government officials favored business people without assisting low income families. As a result, Dinesh said, his generation had lost faith in the government and its policies.

The common issues among rural and urban youth were drug abuse and cyber related crimes due to excessive social media usage. Males were targeted by pyramid schemes while females were targeted by pornography businesses. Saisuon Salim, a development officer based in Kalmunai living with a visual impairment, said that many young people were taking drugs due to freedom with the loss of employment and studies during the lockdown. We heard similar stories from the Monaragala, Colombo and Anuradhapura districts. Saisuon added that many young people had bouts of anxiety and clinical depression due to drugs as well as the consequences of emotional breakdowns and isolation.

Coping mechanisms  

Most of the young people agreed that they were able to connect better with technology during the pandemic. Although the rural youth found it difficult to access online means of communication due to lack of signals and resources, they managed in whatever ways they could with virtual platforms. Dinesh Kavinda said that some of the young people received support from community counsellors and non-governmental organizations virtually. Others found multiple learning opportunities via online platforms that helped them to meet the challenges they faced. “We should train and prepare ourselves to tackle the challenges. We have to find new ways. We will have to live with this pandemic so we need to find new paths and go forward.” said Saisuon.

Anoja Karunadasa, a development practitioner in the Anuradhapura district, spoke of the importance of recognizing different categories of communities who were at risk and making a national contingency plan for a crisis. There was a need for a national database with updated information about families in each district to distribute relief packages and provide necessary support to the most vulnerable people at the correct time. She pointed out the necessity of vocational training institutes in rural districts for youth who did not go on to higher education.

Yasal noted that youth organizations and non-governmental organizations had a role to play. “Young people should develop language skills, technology skills and global awareness in order to achieve success. Youth organizations should be more active and encourage young people,” commented Yasal. He pointed out that youth organizations could protect disadvantaged and marginalized youth from discrimination. “Young people should try new things. If they lose their jobs, they should be able to find a new job or start a new business. We have to live in this pandemic, so better be innovative and create ways to develop yourselves.”

 Way forward

Sri Lankan youth lack state educational opportunities and financial options from state financial institutions. It’s the community-based counsellors, volunteers and non-governmental organizations that have looked into the mental and emotional wellbeing of youth. The way a nation’s leaders treat its youth determines the shape of future and capacity of the citizens of a country so it is important that the voices of youth are heard and that their needs and aspirations are prioritized in the national agendas of development, looking at a future that embraces prosperity and sustainability, especially in a post-pandemic world.

Vibusha Madanayake is a development practitioner and a social activist

Janitha Rukmal is a human rights activist living with a disability who is also a research consultant focusing on public policy and development