Whether it’s high school students rallying boldly against gun violence or a teenager serving as the global face of climate action, events of the past few years have shown us that young people are willing and able to address the biggest challenges of our time.
As the world grapples with a global pandemic of unprecedented proportions, we have yet to call on the power of the younger generation.
Instead, newsfeeds have been littered with stories of millennials and Gen Zers ignoring public health recommendations, suggesting that these generations are ignorant and selfish. Many social media users have circulated the same meme that reads: “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being asked to sit on the couch. You can do this.” While arguably well intentioned, this statement plays on stereotypes that the young continue to endure.
While the data demonstrates that older age cohorts have the highest rates of fatalities from COVID-19, more recent reports are clear—young adults do not get a free pass and some may be as severely affected.
Regardless of their risk of succumbing to the disease, early data does show that the young play an important role in the natural history of COVID-19. Evidence from South Korea shows that asymptomatic young people may be involved in disease spread at a higher proportion than older individuals. Often asymptomatic, young carriers of the virus contribute to rapid spread by unknowingly transmitting it to others who are more vulnerable.
However, the potential impact of the young on the course of this pandemic goes far beyond epidemiology: they play a pivotal role in Canada’s fight against COVID-19 and their energy can be harnessed in three key ways.
First, early stories of COVID-19 spread quickly thanks to social media and young people are well equipped to identify and share trusted news content with their communities. They can help break down technological barriers that many Canadians may face when physically distancing. Often criticized for connecting through social media rather than in person, young people can take this time to teach older generations to stay connected. Whether through sharing an informative Twitter thread from a physician or a helpful Facebook post from a local business, showing a parent how to FaceTime, or showing a grandparent how to stream a press conference or religious event, young adults can help their families use technology to build community and maintain a connection to the outside world. Viral social media challenges and TikTok videos, sometimes dismissed as silly, can now provide genuine entertainment and feelings of connectedness and even spread core public health messages in a memorable way.
Second, in many cases, families and households will now depend on younger family members to assist with important tasks of everyday living—from purchasing groceries and essential supplies to running errands. Public health officials have recommended that one person per household be designated for these roles. Given their lower risk of disease severity and the higher likelihood of being able to more swiftly navigate public spaces while keeping a 2-metre distance, young people are often best suited to take on this role. Medical students across the country have taken on this role, dubbing themselves “caremongers,” providing childcare and grocery services to frontline health workers.
Finally, when it comes to providing the skills and workforce to combat this public health crisis, there are many stories of young people stepping up to the plate through innovative ideas and out-of-the box thinking to help assist in the pandemic response. For instance, McGill University engineering students helped create 3D-printed personal protective equipment; students at the University of Toronto developed an online tool to map the local spread of COVID-19; in Alberta, scores of medical students are assisting public health organizations with contact tracing.
Ultimately, the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic may very well be determined by the choices young people make today more than any other age cohort. As opposed to painting all young people as lazy and ignorant, it’s time we leverage their unique experiences and abilities to help the world move through this pandemic quickly. The young have the power to make physical distancing work and even make it work well. This is the generation of Greta and Malala. Their brand is fearless leadership—not selfishness. If there was ever a time that the world needed them, it is right now. And they could not be more ready for the challenge.