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Opinion: Demonising the young, the old or anyone else in society will not help us battle Covid-19

Ian Power of SpunOut.ie says young people are upset and concerned about the coronavirus, and blaming them for its spread is unhelpful.

Ian Power

IT IS JUST over a week now since creches, schools and colleges closed and many of us were told to work from home, to stay indoors and away from each other to halt the spread of the Coronavirus.

Most of us had only just learned the term for this phenomenon known as ‘social distancing’ for the first time a few weeks before, and according to the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, thankfully there has been a high level of compliance so far.

Sadly, we know that not everyone is heeding the advice of the public health experts and we need to do more to ensure we all stay away from one another in order to prevent the spread of the virus to vulnerable and older people in our society. 

Young people, in particular, were singled out on Friday as not playing their part and doing enough to stay socially distant from one another. In the Seanad, the Tanaiste Simon Coveney delivered a stern instruction to the public to confront groups of young people on street corners and in public parks who are not keeping their distance.

No doubt he is channelling the frustration of the very many healthcare professionals putting their own wellbeing on the line to care for those who have already, and will, contract this deadly virus.

In this together

However, now is not a time for an intergenerational blame game. Yes, some people are not complying with social distancing and we need to do what we can to encourage and support people to make the behaviour change we need to see to save lives, but singling out cohorts of society isn’t the answer.

The chief medical officer delivered a slightly more tempered message to young people, aware that they can sometimes be prone to riskier decision-making. Dr Holohan’s remarks demonstrated an understanding that the most effective way to reduce risky behaviour is to approach people in a non-judgemental way with a harm reduction message.

Adopting such an approach is better advised when you want to persuade anyone who thinks they are invincible right now that it’s not ourselves we need to worry about, but rather those we care about who are particularly vulnerable to this disease. 

As we’ve all recently learned, younger people who contract the virus may not develop symptoms, and even if we do those symptoms may be milder, but the real threat is that we could be vectors for the spread of the disease to our parents, grandparents and loved ones with underlying conditions. 

Generalisations are never the answer

I am really concerned about the effects of one generation assuming the entirety of another is not playing their part and that the generalising and stereotyping is creating real resentment amongst an entire generation.

Moreover, it’s simply not true. According to the CSO there are 600,000 people aged between 14 and 24 in Ireland today, and I think it’s safe to say there are not 600,000 young people hanging around on street corners and parks around the country. 

Yes, just like any cohort, there will always be a minority who don’t follow the rules. People of all ages are transgressing, whether it’s not observing social distancing, buying every loo roll and slice pan in sight, or spreading wild army lockdown messages on WhatsApp. People of all ages need to cop on, now is not the time to blame or target one particular group.

Lots of younger people care intensely about the spread of this virus; they care about their vulnerable family members and friends, they’re already social distancing, helping in the community, keeping spirits up and doing what they can.

The young people in our youth groups in SpunOut.ie were really disappointed yesterday at the accusation that young people aren’t doing their bit. One young woman spoke of her grandparent passing away last weekend, and not being able to grieve in person with her mother who has an underlying medical condition for fear of spreading the virus to her. If that’s not personal responsibility, I don’t know what is.

Covid-19 affects us all

Young people are affected by the virus, they’re getting it in large numbers, their lives are being turned upside down in many ways by it, including for example Leaving Cert students who are stressed out and wondering if they’ll be doing exams at all or going to college in September.

One in five young people getting in touch with our mental health text line in SpunOut.ie is really worried and anxious about the virus. It’s causing real effects to their mental health and it’s even more harmful to hear older people saying they don’t care. We also have to remember that for some young people, home is not a safe, welcoming or happy place to be. 

All of this is not to excuse, but rather attempt to understand. We’re all finding it really difficult to process what’s going on, even those of us with a few decades of life experience under our belts.

Chat to the teen or young adult in your life, help them to gain perspective, help them to understand how this virus spreads and who it affects, don’t snipe on Twitter or condescend from the sidelines. Only by attempting to engage in an empathetic way can we succeed at changing behaviour, and we must make sure to role model the behaviour we want to see ourselves too. 

Information matters

I’ve been so encouraged by the wonderful work of so many role models in entertainment, the GAA, in Rugby, broadcasters such as RTE, 2FM, Spin1038, Spin South West, iRadio, Beat102103 and our own team in SpunOut.ie to reach young people with public health messages on channels where they get their information and news.

We should also all take note of the approach of President Michael D. Higgins on Friday when he signed the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020 into law. He delivered a rallying call to young people to rise to the national challenge we now face.

The President remarked that “Intergenerational solidarity has been one of the greatest resources of contemporary Irish society. Future generations, it is my belief, will look back at this critical time and I hope that they will be proud of how we as a society rose to the challenges together, with different generations taking account of one another.” 

If we truly are all in this together, we need messages of unity like the one shared by President Higgins, not blame or anger. Let’s all work together to stay apart and save lives.

Ian Power is CEO of SpunOut.ie, Ireland’s youth information website by young people, for young people. If you need support right now, text JOURNAL to 086 1800 280 to chat anonymously with a trained SpunOut.ie volunteer. Our volunteers are here to listen about every and any problem, especially any anxiety or worries people have about what’s happening right now. The service is available 24/7 and standard SMS rates may apply.

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Ian Power

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