January 23, 2021

Youth of the pandemic: new risks, old prejudices

Although they have not been the group hardest hit by the pandemic, young people are the center of all eyes. During the lack of awareness and the new normality, the cases of parties, crowded discos and big bottles among groups of adolescents and young people are taking over the media attention and are branded as irresponsible and unsupportive, returning to the false cliché that the previous generations were not like that.

However, if we analyze the almost 100 days that the state of alarm lasted, as María Teresa Pérez, director general of the Youth Institute (SINC) explains to SINCInjuve), “the behavior of both young people in general, and society as a whole, has been exemplary.” And he adds: “There have been irresponsible behaviors but they have been in the minority.”

The data show that the cases of COVID-19 notified to the National Network of Epidemiological Surveillance of young people between 15 and 29 years old, with a diagnosis after May 10, accounted for 19.3% of the total as of July 17. Of these patients, there was one deceased, a figure that contrasts with the 143 deaths in patients 80 years of age and older, the most affected by this coronavirus.

Despite the fact that the disease in adolescents and young people is usually not as serious as in the elderly, experts warn that they are not immune and what cases like the 28-year-old doctor who died in Mota del Cuervo (Cuenca) by COVID-19 are a reality.

They, like the rest of the population, are learning to live with an unknown risk. It’s not the first time. If we go back in time, in the 80s and 90s of the last century, those who were young then faced threats that today have less force but are still present. Traffic accidents, drug use or AIDS ended the lives of thousands of Spaniards at that time.

The AIDS pandemic in Spain

Ramón Espacio, president of the State Coordinator for HIV and AIDS (CESIDA), remember those years well. “In the mid-1990s, AIDS was the main cause of mortality in young people in Spain, above traffic accidents,” he tells SINC.

Death data collected by the National Statistics Institute (INE) of both men and women between 25 and 29 years old reveal that, until 1991, the main cause of death in this age group was traffic accidents, but from 1992 to 1996 it was AIDS.

Although COVID-19 and AIDS are two completely different diseases, they have in common that we are talking about two pandemics and that, in both cases, prevention measures are essential to avoid the transmission of viruses.

In the case of AIDS, after the peak of deaths in Spain in the mid-1990s, the figures began to drop slowly thanks to several factors. Espacio points to a greater awareness of young people, especially men who had sex with men, to an increasing use of condoms and to structural measures to reduce drug consumption, especially through injecting –the use of a syringe–, which was a of the major transmission routes of the virus.

“AIDS carries a stigma burden that made it very difficult for people to feel affected and for the campaigns to reach the general population because, from the beginning, HIV – the virus that causes the disease – was unfortunately associated with misnamed groups of risk “, points out the president of CESIDA.

The risks of the new times

Precisely at that time, in 1986, the Aid Foundation Against Drug Addiction (FAD), whose objective was to prevent drug use, another of the greatest threats of those years that is still present. More than three decades later, FAD has expanded its focus to new areas and in relation to the current pandemic, it has launched several studies to analyze how the behavior of Spanish youth has been.

“Now young people are at other risks, each at the time and with the risk situations they have to live. Certainly, this generation is experiencing a pandemic, a new phenomenon in recent history that has its own characteristics and different from other risks for the health of other times such as AIDS, “compares SINC Anna Sanmartín, deputy director of the Reina Sofía Center on Adolescence and Youth of FAD.

The expert emphasizes that, faced with a risk that young people may see further away about their physical health, the important thing is to promote individual responsibility, emphasizing that the pandemic has affected all of us in our well-being. “It is not just about appealing to intergenerational solidarity with their elders, but with society in general, so that we can develop our lives as normally as possible,” she added.

During the confinement, Aroa Méndez and Xao Feixa, second-year high school students at an institute in Lleida, decided to tell how they were living it in an illustrated newspaper. Their experiences are part of the book Confined teens (2020), written by the social anthropologist Carles Feixa, who lived with the two young women during the state of alarm.

“The adolescents had two ‘protective masks’ that we adults have less: the culture of the room and the cyberculture”, comments to SINC Feixa, who is professor of Social Anthropology at the Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona). The anthropologist complains that these young people were “the great forgotten by the State” but that, even so, they lived the confinement in a very satisfactory way, “almost as a rite of passage”.

Victims of two crises

The experts consulted agree on the fragility of this generation, which has been doubly shaken in a short space of time: first, by the recent economic crisis and now, by the pandemic.

“The value judgments are superfluous. What counts are the material opportunities granted to each generation and the current one, in this sense, is one of the worst treated in historical terms. Without just emerging from an economic crisis, they encounter a health crisis and, in both cases, they are the most favorable victims, “warns Feixa.

Specialists warn that this pandemic, as already happened with the economic crisis, will delay the passage of young people to adulthood because unemployment and job insecurity will increase. The epidemiologist George Patton, head of the Adolescent Health group at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (Australia), believes that we will see very high rates of youth unemployment again in much of the world.

“This has the potential to leave young people in the waithood phenomenon – waiting period – unable to make a transition away from their family of origin to an independent life,” he explains to SINC.

In addition to the economic impact, several studies have analyzed the consequences that this stage can have on their lives. In the case of social relations, an article published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health warns that the reduction of face-to-face social contact in adolescence, a period in which the environment and relationships are important for brain development, mental health and self development, it could have detrimental effects in the long term.

“Social interaction is a crucial component for adolescent development. From animal studies, we know that lack of social interaction during early development can have negative consequences later,” he told SINC. Jack andrews, researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London (United Kingdom).

At the center of the campaigns

During the state of alarm, technology became the great ally of young people to overcome the lack of face-to-face communication with their friends, devices with which they handle themselves like fish in water and that they even had to teach how to use. their own mothers and fathers. For this reason, and after the confinement, the experts bet on using these same tools to send them messages that stop the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2.

As posed an article Published in Trends in Cognitive Science magazine, health authorities should include adolescents in their prevention campaigns so that they can lead them and share their example on social networks, reaching their friends and all their contacts. That way they would feel part of the solution.

“Teens are more likely to adhere to social distancing if it is seen as a norm among their peer group,” says Andrews, who participates in the study. Following this same idea, the researcher proposes that public health organizations address influential profiles in these networks so that they spread the norms among their young followers.

The CEO of Injuve – a public body attached to the Ministry of Social Rights and the 2030 Agenda – is aware of the importance of putting youth at the center of campaigns. “It is imperative that policy makers are able to listen to young people and incorporate their proposals and contributions into the recovery policies of our country,” she says.

In his opinion, a balance must be struck between the flexibility required for progressive adaptation to the new normality and prudence to avoid turning back the epidemiological situation.

Along with these positive measures, specialists emphasize what does not work with young people, to avoid it in campaigns directed at them. “Authoritarianism or paternalism do not work. It is about turning those measures into something trendy, modern, well seen,” says Feixa.

A committed generation

Parties and large bottles are a risk for the spread of the virus, but experts ask not to stigmatize youth. During the confinement, youth groups helped vulnerable groups such as the elderly by bringing them food or drugs, among other initiatives.

“The coronavirus crisis in our country has brought to light the most altruistic and supportive side of youth,” maintains the CEO of Injuve, who recalls that all generations, including those of the 80s, 90s and millennials, They have been accused of being irresponsible or selfish, although the reality, before and now, is different.

Nor can the pandemic cause us to forget its commitment to equality or environment. “In the studies of the Reina Sofía Center on Adolescence and Youth, young people between the ages of 15 and 29 show themselves as a feminist generation that seeks social justice and defends the environment, which shows that they are a much-needed generation in many ways”, concludes the deputy director of the center.


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