African youth are at the heart of the change we need now

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Aya Chebbi is a Pan-African activist, Chair of Nala Feminist Collective, CEO of Afresist, and served as the first African Union Special Envoy of Youth.

Young people may be less likely to fall severely ill from COVID-19, but in so many other ways, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted their lives.

This is especially true on the African continent. The informal, low-paying labour market, where most young people work, was hit hardest by the pandemic. In Nigeria, 45% of people surveyed said they stopped working by the middle of 2020. In Uganda, the figure was 17%.

Young people have suffered increased domestic violence, and severe strains on their mental health brought on by the stress of unemployment, lost educational opportunities, high levels of uncertainty and insecurity, and, at times, isolation from friends and family. Education has been so severely interrupted that the United Nations estimates 24 million of the world’s poorest children may never return to school.

How African youth have remained resilient

But in the face of all this, African youth have shown great resilience throughout the pandemic. For the past eight months, I served on the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. As part of our research into what caused the pandemic and how a similar viral outbreak can be contained and managed in the future, we held discussions and meetings with doctors, nurses, health workers, and youth, and also had a continued intergenerational dialogue between youth activists and elder statespeople.

These conversations have helped shine a light on young volunteers’ devotion to supporting their communities through numerous activities. During the pandemic, they helped community groups with surveillance, testing, and contact tracing efforts. They went into town centres, markets, businesses, and door-to-door distributing informational pamphlets on how to stop COVID-19 from spreading. They acted as volunteer distributors of essential medical equipment such as masks and helped vulnerable members of the community find health services. In several countries, digitally savvy and entrepreneurial young companies designed apps to help combat the spread of disinformation about COVID-19.

The Independent Panel’s conclusions are that this pandemic could have been avoided if countries had shown greater leadership and acted much quicker to contain the spread of this disease. It also warns that the world is not prepared for the next outbreak. This is why the Independent Panel is calling for stronger leadership and better coordination at national, regional, and international level, including a more focused and independent World Health Organization and a negotiated declaration agreed at a UN special session, which would lead to a senior Global Health Threats Council and International Pandemic Financing Facility.

It’s important to ensure that attention to pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response is sustained over time in the service of a vision of a world without pandemics. There should be an inclusive and legitimate voice of authority that involves civil society, including youth.

Implementing change

Young people have the biggest stake in preventing a future pandemic because they are more likely to be around to face its consequences. We are the leaders, the doctors, the midwives, the public health specialists, the business leaders, and the government officials of both today and tomorrow.

It will be vital that national and regional leaders incorporate communities and youth in their decision-making, because although presidents and prime ministers can pass reforms, it is those within local communities who will help deliver and implement change.

But in the short term, we need to bring a close to the suffering and death caused by this pandemic. Young and old alike, African people now find themselves at the back of the vaccine queue as new variants of the virus continue to spread around the world.

The Independent Panel calls for the unjust inequity in vaccine access to be addressed immediately. It is not only shameful that much of Africa and other low- and middle-income regions have had limited or no access to vaccine doses, it also threatens the effectiveness of global efforts to control the pandemic.

Companies and countries producing vaccines must make their formulas publically available within three months or be forced to do so. Production of and access to COVID-19 tests and therapeutics, including oxygen, should be scaled up urgently. All countries should have clear, evidence-based strategies to curb transmission. As the daily headlines remind us, this pandemic is far from over and is now hitting the Global South the hardest.

In the course of the panel’s work it was dispiriting to learn that after previous pandemics and epidemics, inequality increased in affected countries in the five years following each event. Yet far too little action was taken to prevent and prepare for future pandemics. We must not make the same mistakes again.

In Africa’s often fragile economies, social protection and welfare — the set of guarantees that ideally, every country should have in place – are often challenging for governments.

We need a whole-world response to a whole-world problem, one that recognises – as the pandemic has made absolutely clear – that our planet thrives or dies together. Youth are the voice of the future and must be at the heart of our plans moving forward.

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