Can the impact of COVID-19 unite coalitions of young and old?

Guest blogger Michelle Winthrop discusses whether acute global challenges can drive intergenerational solidarity, helping to get the needs and rights of the young and old met.

Michelle Winthrop's picture
Insight by 
Michelle Winthrop
Michelle Winthrop is director of policy at Irish Aid, a part of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs
21 July 2020
Two woman sit at a radio production desk

During the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, radios were utilised to enable students to continue to learn (Photo: GPE/Ludovica Pellicioli, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last month, Ireland celebrated Cruinniú na nÓg, an annual event to stimulate and showcase young people’s creativity in the arts. This year, under COVID-19 restrictions, the celebration saw a wealth of online collaboration – in art, music and literature. It was a sharp reminder of how we need to cherish our young during these challenging times.

We have also seen a great reaction to the Home School Hub, an initiative of our national broadcaster (RTÉ) to bring the classroom into living rooms across the country. My children watched with interest a report about how, during the pandemic, young students in Sierra Leone – using systems set up during the Ebola crisis – have been remote learning through radio.

The programme reinforced how, while children’s circumstances might differ, the common challenge being out of school can create an early sense of solidarity and interconnectedness.

Virus takes its toll on ‘class of 2020’

This is all very positive and shows how innovation can prevail in challenging circumstances. But for many millions, the picture is not so rosy.

Globally there are more than 1 billion children whose schooling has been severely disrupted by COVID-19. It may be some years before we really understand what the impact on children in the ‘class of 2020’ will be.

Aside from educational disruption, there are issues around mental health, spikes in domestic abuse, and the risk of millions of girls dropping out of school indefinitely as household, livelihood and caregiving duties take priority. An estimated 10 million adolescent girls globally may not continue their education after pandemic restrictions are lifted.

There are solutions, such as social protection systems to incentivise continued school attendance. And some civil society organisations (CSOs) are carrying out progressive work to understand the wider social impacts of the disruption on young people. Now, more than ever, we need to safeguard our children, and ensure their futures are secure.

Of course, those of us in the climate movement have been closely observing the role of young people in climate activism, and more recently in the Black Lives Matter movement. This youth engagement is fantastic, and chimes with a programme at the heart of Ireland’s Development Education, committing to nurture ‘global citizenship’ among young Irish people, to embrace diversity, understand better global development issues, and encourage activism in schools, universities and in civic space.

While there has been some youth activism on the impacts of COVID-19, it has been less visible due to social distancing measures, and the dominance of the Black Lives Matter movement. That said, Black Lives Matter has been an opportunity to raise the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of colour.

Older people: vulnerable, excluded and overlooked

How intergenerational trade-offs and collaborations play out has also been a concern of the climate and environment community. The basic principle that older people are empowered to make decisions that will directly impact their children, grandchildren and future generations has been articulated frequently and vehemently, particularly among climate activists.

That said, COVID-19 has altered that dynamic in communities around the world, where older people have been disproportionately affected.

In many developed countries discussions have opened up around how we care for the elderly, and whether we could have looked after them better at the peak of the pandemic. Again, it may take time before we understand the mental health impacts of cocooning an entire generation and cutting them off from their families for months on end, despite that being the right thing to do for public health reasons.

In developing countries there are far more worrying trends at play. HelpAge has raised concerns in the World Health Organization, the European Union and other forums about broader impacts on the elderly, such as exclusion from regular public health services, on account of fears they are COVID-19 carriers.

There has been a spike in violence against older people, especially older women. And of course, the collapse in livelihood systems in many places raises sharp concerns about deprivation and malnutrition among older people.

Social protection systems are struggling to respond quickly enough to the emerging deprivation, often lacking the scope and flexibility needed to tackle these trends. And there is further pressure for these systems to extend coverage to the estimated 4 billion people without access. Greater investment is needed.

During this pandemic, the voices of the elderly are going unheard as the shrinking space for civil society in many countries impacts the ability of CSOs to advocate for older people’s rights.

Rallying together

Governments, in developing countries, as well as wealthier ones, need to get behind CSOs and national and local level coalitions that champion the rights of young and older people, supporting these two groups to influence policies that affect them.

Many women’s organisations help to get access to a range of public services including health, care support, education and social protection, and are key to addressing gender-based and domestic violence, and discrimination against elderly women. Given the prevalence of multi-generational household units, these organisations successful in bringing intergenerational issues to the surface. 

COVID-19 has been challenging for so many. And we know such challenges – especially to achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, but also in tackling the climate emergency and dealing with future pandemics – will persist.

But these could be opportunities for intergenerational solidarity like we’ve never seen before.

These are moments for the young and old to harness their experience and energy and get the needs and rights, including of the furthest behind in all our societies, heard loud and clear.