“Many countries are now starting to lift the lockdowns and relax the earlier stringent movement restrictions. The African Youth Front on Coronavirus believes that this is the best period to address the issues which were revealed as a result of the pandemic.”
On January 27, 2020, Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC) activated its emergency operations centre and its incident management system for the COVID-19 outbreak. Shortly after, on February 22, the African Union Ministers of health met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for an emergency COVID-19 meeting where a joint continental strategy was agreed on to create a guide for testing, movement restrictions and monitoring of at-risk population for the COVID-19 virus.
The Africa CDC under the leadership of the African Union was proactive and showed decisive leadership in providing a prompt strategy for a continental response. In addition to this, on May 6, the African Union, recognizing that the majority of the continent’s population is young people, established the African Youth Front on Coronavirus. This group was created to incorporate the efforts of youth leaders at the grassroots in the decisions being made by the African Union, on not only the response to the pandemic itself, but also the mitigation of the socio-economic issues which were exposed and worsened by the pandemic. This makes the African Union the first (and perhaps only) intergovernmental organization to create a high level policy and advocacy framework for young people to co-lead Africa’s response to the pandemic.
The African Youth Front on Coronavirus, an Innovation of the African Union
The African Youth Front on Coronavirus was not just created by random selection. A bottom-up approach was adopted through the Virtual AU Youth Consultations on COVID-19 with youth groups, national youth councils, students, and young women’s groups, among other actors. The aim of these consultations was to collect from young grassroots leaders information on the situation of the pandemic in their locality: what had been done and what the most pressing challenges were. Out of these consultations, youth networks nominated representatives who would speak for them and represent their voices and opinions and champion the various initiatives of the African Union through Africa CDC. This group functions under the leadership of the African Union Special Envoy on Youth.
Since its Inception, the Youth Front has discussed and developed several policy briefs and recommendations to assist Africa CDC in its response to the global pandemic. In May, the group developed a policy brief on youth contributions to the Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Tests, including proposals to support Africa CDC in their goal to test 10 million Africans in 6 months. In June, the youth front circulated a survey in 4 languages—English Swahili, French and Arabic—to assess the methods through which young Africans access COVID-19 information. This survey gathered 1,130+ responses from all regions of the continent, and the results gleaned were developed into a policy brief submitted to Africa CDC to give insight on the best way to disseminate information to youth and what channels should be prioritized. As part of the Youth Front’s efforts to support Africa CDC with reaching youth with relevant and scientific information, on June 17, the Youth Front collaborated with Africa CDC on Risk Communication webinar for youth, in order to educate and mobilize young leaders to actively be involved in the dissemination of reliable and credible information on the pandemic. In July, the group focused majorly on exploring the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable youth and the best ways in which these youth can be supported.
The impacts of the pandemic on African youth
As part of their ongoing engagement, on June 22 and 29, 2020, the African Youth Front on Coronavirus held discussions on the impact of COVID-19 on youth and the most immediate post-lockdown needs, coordinated by the representatives of the National Youth Council of The Gambia and the National Youth Council of Cameroon. Some of the guiding questions for the discussions included:
- How has the pandemic affected youth in your constituency?
- What is the state of vulnerable youth?
- What are the most immediate post lockdown needs of young people in your constituency?
During these discussions, the youth leaders noted that young people were not affected as much by the actual virus as compared to the much older populations. They also noted that deaths from the pandemic in their immediate communities were not very high when compared with global trends. However, the youth leaders emphasized the socio-economic impact of the pandemic which was disproportionately heavier on young people and had dire consequences for many African youth. In addition, the global pandemic exposed the inadequacies of infrastructure, healthcare, governance, and social protection in many African countries.
The points below illustrate the major areas that the members of the Youth Front uncovered as being major impacts of the pandemic on youth:
Interruption of education: A member of the African Youth Front is the Federation of African Medical Students Associations noted that the education of many of their members had been interrupted, as many institutions did not have the necessary structure to support out-of-classroom learning. In counties where online learning was attempted, access for these students was a consistent challenge due to poor internet connectivity and high costs, lack of electricity and unconducive home environments.
Rising Unemployment: Work in the informal sector is the standard economic condition of most youth in Africa. In the discussions, the Southern African Youth Forum representatives noted that due to imposed lockdowns many youth had lost their sources of livelihood as youth were majorly involved in this form of vulnerable employment. Another member, the National Youth Council of Namibia stressed the mass retrenchment of many workers even in the formal sector as companies were either closing down or slimming their workforce to cope with the reduction in economic activity and revenue. In this same vein, the Youth Front members representing the East African Community Youth Ambassadors Platform reported that many youth in their constituency, prior to the pandemic, had commenced activities to be economically empowered via starting up small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Unfortunately, the global pandemic negatively affected these activities greatly.
Gender-based violence: The reports on gender-based violence and child marriages were well elaborated by the consultations held by the African Women Leaders Network (Young Leaders Caucus), which highlighted significant increases in violence in many African countries, such as Nigeria, where reported cases of gender-based violence increased by 56% after just two weeks of lockdown. They noted that these cases were on the rise with many of the survivors being trapped with their aggressors and having limited access to external support and care. In addition, the network reported an increase in female genital mutilation in countries such as Somalia, where the school closures, lack of access to healthcare facilities, and slowing down of activities in institutions that should serve to uphold justice had created an enabling environment for targeted violence against women and girls. Another trend reported was a spike in teenage pregnancies in Kenya during the lockdowns.
The representatives of Moremi Initiative Leadership Empowerment and Development Network (MILEAD) further contributed to these discussions stating that it was mostly young women who had been affected by financial instability and unemployment. They noted that many of these young women were now burdened with more unpaid domestic labour and their condition was further worsened by the financial hardship which many households now faced.
Nutrition and other health impacts: On the worsening of the conditions of vulnerable youth, the Refugee Led Organizations Network is represented on the Youth Front by a young female leader who is a refugee living in Uganda. She noted the worsening economic situation of vulnerable youth that she worked with who had difficulty accessing food, financial support, and healthcare support as a fallout from the measures put in pace to curb the spread of the pandemic. She noted that the gap between these youth, especially those living with chronic conditions such as HIV/AIDS, and healthcare providers was particularly worrisome. Furthermore, another member of the Youth Front representing the Afrika Youth Movement carried out a survey among young people living with disabilities in Cameroon. The majority of the respondents (86%) reported their physical and mental health as being poor/fair, reaching even depression.
Priorities for building back better
As has been illustrated, the effects of COVID-19 especially on African Youth have been vast and far-reaching. Many countries are now starting to lift the lockdowns and relax the earlier stringent movement restrictions. The African Youth Front on Coronavirus believes that this is the best period to address the issues which were revealed as a result of the pandemic. Young people at this point do not want quick and easy fixes to only solve the immediate problems. They believe that many of these challenges had such dire effects due to gross systematic failures. Hence, this period of rebuilding is the time to do the difficult work and address systemic issues that would leave us better prepared for any future challenges that might arise to threaten the existence of the African people.
Based on this premise, the members of the Youth Front uncovered the following needs which youth in their constituency believe are the most immediate and pressing issues to be addressed.
- Education and back-to-school support services: As lock-downs are being lifted and governments gradually lifting bans on businesses, the big question on when students can go back to school has become more necessary to answer. The reopening of schools will require support structures to firmly be put in place, to not only ensure that students can continue their education which was interrupted, but also foster an environment in which they can do so safely and without contracting the COVID-19 virus. As online learning has become the mainstay of education during the pandemic, it is now imperative to address internet challenges to make internet services widely available and subsidized for students. In addition to this, educators need to rethink the current methods of testing knowledge gained and assessing students at the end of a learning period to reflect this new reality.
- Employment and economic support: Many young people lost jobs and sources of livelihood during COVID-19. Even for those who had a source of income, many saw a tremendous decline in frequency and quantity of income they were able to realize from these means of livelihood (especially those in the informal sector). An immediate priority right now should be how to support youth with employment and financial resources. This support should not only be quick temporary fixes such as palliatives (although these too would play a role), but rather more long-lasting reforms to create avenues for employment for the large number of youth who became unemployed as a result of the pandemic. Youth leaders have stated that there is a pressing need for a structured and detailed plan to embark on economic activities in order to build back all that was lost during the pandemic.
- Youth-friendly and gender-based psychosocial support services: The recent spikes in gender-based violence and mental health challenges both in Africa and globally are worrying signs, and we do not have a sufficient support structure to address these issues. Young leaders, especially young women such as the Youth Front members representing the Gender is My Agenda Campaign, have reiterated the need for more readily available counselling services, more places to report cases of gender-based and sexual violence, and more avenues to get prompt and holistic healthcare following abuse, as well as the need for more safe spaces for youth to discuss the challenges they have been facing during this lockdown. Young people, especially young women, need provision of public childcare in order to allow them to engage in economically rewarding activities so they may be able to care for their families.
- Immediate support and welfare relief for vulnerable populations: Refugee and internally displaced youth and youth living with disabilities or chronic or severe mental health challenges have been particularly susceptible to various hardships the pandemic introduced. Young leaders have emphasized the need for an immediate channeling of resources to mitigate the negative impact on these groups. Welfare relief packages, healthcare access specifically targeting those populations, and avenues for meaningful employment are immediate needs for these groups.
The road to recovery is long and arduous. It will take determination, thorough planning and strategy, as well as collaborative effort to be able to build back better. However, young people are saying that they do not want business as usual. The recovery phase should take into consideration all the failings exposed by COVID-19 with solid strategies on how to address them.
Young people are calling for service delivery but also their rightful place in society. The AU Office of the Youth Envoy has curated a concept of Intergenerational co-leadership which is a much needed strategy to stimulate solidarity among generations and bring more youth to the decision making and leadership positions. The African Youth Front on Coronavirus could be a case study for best practices on how to engage youth meaningfully during crises, empowering them to co-lead and bridge the divide between grassroots youth and decision-making spaces.
The needs we have discussed are only the tip of an iceberg, and there is a need to dig deep and carefully analyze the various issues and possible pathways to recovery. However, this requires collaborative and collective effort to achieve Agenda 2063, The Africa We Want.
About the author
Dr. Chiamaka Nwachukwu is the Coordinator of the Youth Front at the African Union Office of the Youth Envoy.
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COVID-19 Africa Watch tracks major developments and policy announcements from across the continent and also offers a curated selection of analysis on how the pandemic will impact African economies and development efforts. The site is a project of the Milken Institute’s Global Market Development Practice.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of COVID-19 Africa Watch or any affiliated organization.