Asian youth, hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, should have a voice to decide their future
09 October 2021
Opinions on schooling for Asian youth impacted by Covid-19.
Young people are struggling with online schooling, a volatile job market and mental health challenges
Some have chosen to speak up to help their communities. This should be encouraged by giving youth opportunities to engage in policymaking
Like many of her generation, Pauline Mandrilla, a 23-year-old civil engineer from Manila, suddenly found herself jobless when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Mandrilla felt like a statistic, as she joined the ranks of some 22 per cent of unemployed Philippine youth affected by the pandemic’s economic fallout.
“During the onset of the pandemic, we were placed in a no-work, no-pay situation,” Mandrilla recalled. “My previous job heavily relied on my being physically present on a construction site, but because of the quarantine restrictions, which halted public transportation in my region, I couldn’t go to work.”
Mandrilla’s story is familiar to many youth throughout East and Southeast Asia. Often regarded as the most “connected” generation in history – a reference to their ability to partake of global developments through the internet – young people in the region aged 15 to 30 are nonetheless grappling with a “new normal” amid the pandemic.
While those without internet access have been left behind during the shift to online learning, others have found self-directed learning a huge challenge.
Recent graduates who were able to successfully navigate these online complexities are now discovering even greater hurdles in one of the most volatile job markets in history. The current youth unemployment numbers in Singapore and South Korea, which in both countries exceeds 10 per cent, provide clear indicators of this bracing reality.
Perhaps even more troubling are the impacts of the pandemic on mental health. The uncertainty of the job market, combined with the isolation of online learning and the everyday threat of getting sick, have created negative, long-term impacts on the mental health of the region’s youth.
In a 2020 study published in the Journal of Population and Social Studies on the mental health effects of Covid-19 on over 1,000 higher education students in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, 38 per cent indicated they had experienced “mild-to-moderate” depression and anxiety, and just over 20 per cent reported regularly experiencing “severe anxiety”.
While such challenges paint a vivid picture of the obstacles affecting youth, they arguably also mask more positive trends. Young people are now seeking new opportunities to help their communities.
For Mandrilla and thousands like her, the impacts of Covid-19 inspired her to improve herself, and uplift others in her country. During six months of unemployment, she joined a Unesco-supported initiative that trained young people to investigate the impacts of Covid-19 on others of their generation, and to create policy recommendations based on their findings.
That Mandrilla was among 6,000 applicants to 300 volunteer positions highlights young people’s enthusiasm for such a programme. Nearly two-thirds of these applicants came from the Asia-Pacific region alone.
It is often said that young people are best positioned to understand the challenges affecting others like them. Yet, the opportunities for them to share in government policy decision-making in the region, or to help influence civic or community programme development, remain severely limited.
A common reason offered against engaging youth in decision-making processes is that they lack the knowledge or maturity to understand complex situations and to create appropriate policy responses.
Rather than dismissing our region’s youth as incapable of making informed decisions regarding their own futures, we must foster the enthusiasm they are demonstrating during the pandemic.
When youth recognise the power within themselves to improve their own circumstances, and when they seek out platforms where they can act on their novel ideas and approaches to social issues, the possibilities for positive action are endless.
Volunteer initiatives such as “Youth as Researchers” not only help to focus and refine youth voices, encourage evidence-based advocacy, and enhance capacity building opportunities, they also present youth with opportunities for building global connections.
Young people in the region will have to live with the long-term impacts of this pandemic, and contend with unforeseen consequences of decisions made “in the moment”, as we all will.
Therefore, investment in the future must involve youth voices and substantially engage youth in decisions that will affect them. Evidence-based advocacy training is just one option among many worth exploring.
As Mandrilla’s story reminds us, while Covid-19 has severely disrupted the lives of many youth, the ways in which they are coming together to take action for themselves is testament to their incredible resilience. This will help guide us all through this crisis if we let it.