Tomorrow the 73rd WHA (World Health Assembly), the highest-decision making governing body of the World Health Organization, resumes over a span of the week to cover areas of priority that remain unaddressed since the 73rd WHA that took place in May 2020, focusing primarily on the global COVID-19 response and the role of the WHO in this response.
In advance of the resumed 73rd WHA taking place in November 2020, I had an opportunity as Canada’s youth delegate, to gather additional perspectives and ideas to help shape the youth perspective and priorities that helped inform the Canadian delegation’s positioning on various items.
The youth consultations (virtual roundtable discussions, online survey, additional informal one-on-one discussions) were framed around two key questions: 1) how have Canadian youth been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? and 2) what is the role of youth in the COVID-19 response?
Canadian youth are a diverse population of students, young people, and professionals that have been contributing to the COVID-19 response through essential work (i.e. in healthcare institutions or in public health units), volunteering (i.e. initiatives to support vulnerable community members, gathering PPE for hospitals/clinics), and advocating for a healthy, green, and just recovery from COVID-19 (i.e. tackling the syndemics of climate crisis, opioid crisis, housing crisis).
Canadian youth have also shown great resilience and flexibility in learning in a virtual means due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this has also led to significant challenges to accessibility and equity in certain cases, and has impacted how socialization, connection, and mentorship can take place, with important considerations on impacts to mental wellness and building a truer sense of community.
Canadian youth are also very cognizant of the impact of misinformation on our populations/communities and its impact on our compliance with COVID-19 related public health measures. We also have a unique role to play to tackle the ‘infodemic’ in creating scientific communication that is appropriate for youth audiences, that ultimately cuts through the noise and helps provide understanding and facilitates behaviour change.
Many have taken note of the need to concurrently address and utilize the partnerships and collaborations that have allowed an effective and efficient COVID-19 response to date, to also effectively and efficiently respond to the syndemics and intersection between this pandemic and many other crises (i.e., climate, opioids, homelessness, mental health, etc.) and how such crises also disproportionately affect already marginalized and vulnerable populations.
It has been identified that there has been a lack of inclusion of youth in the decisions surrounding the local/provincial COVID-19 responses. The governance structures of decision-making institutions need to reflect meaningful engagement, inclusion, and participation of youth.
The following questions and discussion items summarize and/or quote excerpts that summarize the discussions and inputs that took place on these guiding questions.
How have you as a youth, student, or young professional been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
- Education: The loss of opportunities for learning, and job/volunteer opportunities, online learning, and working environments – more difficult to connect socially and develop networks.
- Mental wellness: Presence of screen/’Zoom’ fatigue, familial stress, not having the optimal environment at home for studying/learning – other siblings, parents that work from home, etc. (unsafe home environments for certain youth).
- Finances: The gaps in social assistance for young people – transitions in jobs over these past few months, leaving a job for another job set up (only to find this job has been cancelled), and left under/unemployed.
- Relationships: Feeling of being more isolated for those aged 18-30 (formative years of building relationships, personal and professional networks, and socialization), and family responsibilities – informal caregiver to others (older adults at home, younger siblings).
- Social determinants of health: Acknowledging privilege of having food, shelter, supportive families, etc. (not all youth have such privileges). “Increased reflection about my privilege as someone who has a supportive family dynamic at home, having shelter, access to nutrition, ability to social distance, to continue my studies”.
From your perspective, what do you think is the role of youth in the COVID-19 response at the level of the WHO?
- Communication: Youth should be more involved in creating youth friendly and specific messaging on various social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram, TikTok etc.) – relatable and accurate content. And youth have a critical role in tackling the ‘infodemic’.
- Advocacy: Acknowledging and advocating on health and social inequities, youth perspectives when it comes to equity, inclusivity, diversity and a just recovery. “Advocating for better social support system, for communities disproportionally affected by COVID (economically but also in terms of mental health, access to care, social isolation, etc.) and most importantly advocating for the climate justice and imminent urgent response to climate change”.
- Youth voice and decision-making: Advocating for mental health services and creative community building, ideas for building resilience, resources on navigating difficult relationships in close circles, including employment concerns, learning and mentorship concerns, and safety of youth. Youth to be more included in decision making, especially for the decisions relating to us that directly impact our lives.
- Sharing wise-practices: Providing recommendations on how youth have contributed to COVID-19 response in various parts of Canada.
- Educating for prevention: “Create a youth culture of preventative, protective, and proactive medical actions through habit creation and behaviour change to stop the spread of COVID. And, most importantly, connect with each other through formal and informal networks to support each other in creating the post-COVID-19 world we want to see, as outlined by a just COVID recovery for all (https://justrecoveryforall.ca/), and be financially supported by local governments to kick start and complete such initiatives. In this process, we will create the jobs we not only seek, but that our world needs”.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your vision of the future in terms of health equity and climate justice?
- Widened gaps in health inequities and other social determinants of health: Women’s health (domestic violence, ongoing access to birth control, childcare & working at home causing heavier burden on women’s mental health), health of the racialized, urban poor communities who need to be physically present for essential jobs & at higher risk of exposure. It has also shown some ways forward in how workplaces can be more accommodating to working women with a family and provides a strong case for a universal minimum income.
- Reducing environmental impacts: Climate change is not only an environmental issue but also a health, economical, and social issue which needs to be urgently addressed. “I worry that climate justice will be forgotten while we ramp up single-use plastic use, single-use PPE, and disposable cleaning products during this pandemic which in theory will exacerbate climate change. I was hopeful meaningful climate reforms would be considered prior to this pandemic and now I worry our priorities are shifted so completely away from it that we will not get back to this topic for months, if not years – when months and years are incredibly important at this critical time for climate change”.
- Collective well-being: This pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequities and have made these inequities more visible to the general public. “Further highlights to me that global health isn’t about national boundaries or different countries, but really about finding ways for all of us to thrive in this inextricably linked global community”.
With hope and hard work, let us re-imagine building a better world that is ultimately better than before the COVID-19 pandemic began – putting health and wellbeing of people and communities as the highest priority.