By now, most people alive know that the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has infected nearly every continent, forced countries into states of emergency, sent individuals into varying levels of quarantine and isolation, and shuttered businesses and schools. But there’s a lesser-known story that also deserves attention: of youth rising up to meet the challenge of this pandemic.
Some have warned that in addition to the tragedy of lost lives and the pain of lost livelihoods, a generation has lost its chance to contribute to our future. But I have seen how young people today — the world’s largest generation of youth in history — is finding purpose in this moment of crisis, and inspiring others to hope and act.
We have all been thrust into a new environment. The coronavirus has made new terms like social distancing and self-isolation common, and enveloped communities around the world in fear. But even as young people face unprecedented difficulties and uncharted paths, they are rising up to make a difference.
Through the confusion, stress and worry that the pandemic naturally causes, young activists and volunteers across the globe are generating ideas, energy and empathy, saving countless lives.
As the United Nations Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, I know there is no better resource in times of trouble than young people. Yes, we need scientific breakthroughs, action by governments and a massive amount of financing, but we also need the kind of initiative and resourcefulness that motivate the world’s outstanding youth.
That is why starting from today, every week, I want to introduce ten young people fighting coronavirus in their communities. You may never visit South Sudan, or travel to Peru, or find yourself in Italy, but when you read their stories you can find something that transcends time and space: a universal impulse to help others in times of need.
We will get through this crisis. And when we do, I am sure that history will show the world’s young people helped to bridge the world from fear to hope and from confusion to understanding.
Now meet 10 young people are prime examples of how the youth are reminding their communities how to stick together, even when we’re all staying apart. Their courage gives me confidence that young people can manifest the best in humanity — and that is a light that will shine for generations to come.
1.Nelson Kwaje (South Sudan)
Tackling misinformation on COVID-19
During this dangerous time of uncertainty, misinformation about the coronavirus can cost lives. That is why youth organizations and young people around the world are turning to online platforms and digital media to share correct information and recommendations to dispel common myths. Nelson Kwaje, a 28-year old young man with a background in tech and peace-building, has made this one of his missions.
Nelson is a Program Director for #DefyHateNow, a community organization based in South Sudan, with branches in Cameroon, Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia. Nelson helped to initiate the #211CHECK collective, which is a digital community of youth working in various fields who collaborate to fight misinformation and raise awareness on coronavirus prevention and protection, using the #COVID19SS hashtag. Their work exposes false facts, disputed and unfounded remedies or cures, doctored images and any and all pieces of information that could confuse and mislead the public. Thanks to them, truth is replacing lies so that people can act in their own best interests, and society’s as a whole.
2.Vittorio Foglio (Switzerland)
Bringing supplies to and keeping company with the elderly
Imagine being elderly and hearing that a new virus hits the oldest among us the hardest. In Geneva, one young man led the charge in addressing universal fears about vulnerable groups, notably the elderly and immunocompromised. Vittorio Foglio, one of the leaders of Geneva’s Perceval Scouts troupe, felt that, as a scout, he had a mandate to help people. This led him to mobilize his fellow scouts to support these communities by reducing the need for them to leave their homes and risk exposure. With teams of people taking phone and email requests and teams delivering supplies, the Perceval Scouts have been responding to the needs of their community and curbing the spread of the virus in the city. Now the elderly there have assistance — and proof that their community cares about their wellbeing.
3.Christian Achaleke (Cameroon)
Producing bottles of disinfectant
Shortages of key supplies are a problem even in some of the most developed countries. Most people, understandably worried, see now way to meet demands. But when the first cases of coronavirus were discovered in Cameroon, 26-year old Christian Achaleke, who works in development, realized that the state had not set up contingencies for containment and management, and decided to do something about it. Starting with his own office, he asked a colleague in charge of logistics to buy hand sanitizer, but she could only find some at double the usual price so they could only afford one. Shortly after, Christian saw a news report about a doctor and his daughter were able to produce homemade hand sanitizer using the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recipe.
He and his officemates then went to buy ingredients, followed the WHO recipe, and tested the mixture. They then devised a plan to launch a campaign to offer hand sanitizer to people on the streets, while also engaging people to be aware of the risks surrounding the spread of the virus. To get the project going, they decided to cancel their annual retreat and dip into their salaries. Their main vision was to engage young people to act responsibly and spread correct information, and to help people follow the preventive measures, which had become prohibitively expensive. He reached to medical and development professionals throughout the country to help him develop this idea, which became the “1 Person 1 Hand Sanitizer” Campaign. He moved his project into a laboratory and engaged pharmacists, doctors, sanitation engineers and nurses to help. Although the actual sanitizer is key, Christian wants to make sure that the labelling and distribution team emphasize awareness-raising in order to encourage individuals to follow WHO’s recommendations to curb the spread of the virus. They are helping people to clean their hands, and to clear away misinformation that can cost lives.
4.Wevyn Muganda and Suhayl Omar (Kenya)
Supporting members of the community
Many people live without a social safety net, and nothing shakes their already unstable situation more than a crisis. The spread of the coronavirus has exposed vulnerable segments of society, prompting communities to rally around them in support. One such example of this is Mutual Aid Kenya, a grassroots and community-focused disaster relief organization and social movement. Based on the concept of mutual aid, which relies on communities working together to ensure each others’ well-being, Wevyn Muganda, an activist and writer, and Suhayl Omar, a community organizer, journalist and student, founded Mutual Aid Kenya to provide aid to vulnerable people who are not properly assisted by government systems.
When the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in Kenya, Wevyn began engaging in digital advocacy, making sure that her fellow Kenyans were well informed of the potential risks and solutions. When it became more apparent that several members of the population were ill-prepared and ill-supported, she and Suhayl knew they had to do more, and the two began working together, leading to the creation of Mutual Aid Kenya.
5.Dana Shubat (Syria)
Coordinating awareness initiatives with civil society volunteers
It can be hard to find hope amid war and destruction, but that is just where it is needed most. Due to the current situation in Syria, many experts are concerned about its ability to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic as it reaches more and more countries. In a push to supplement struggling official responses, many civil society groups have taken it upon themselves to ensure that Syrians are prepared for COVID-19. Dana Shubat has been lending herself to this effort. She participated in a mask and hand sanitizers distribution campaign that took place in the 10 days leading up to the quarantine. In addition to this, she has taken to her social media to provide correct information and sources to the public, posting over 100 times a day on various pages and profiles. Currently, Dana is using the knowledge that she has gained as a medical student to support engineers who are designing medical supplies to be 3D printed to help fill the gaps in the country’s health care system. She is also providing support to special needs students via WhatsApp, continuing her role as a volunteer for the Special Olympics. Dana’s work extends even further still. She has been translating COVID-19 manuals into Arabic and has joined the Young Sustainable Impact (YSI) Program 19, an innovation program aiming to solve problems related to the COVID-19 crisis.
6.Inés Yabar (Peru)
“Spread sense not the virus”
When it comes to a mass crisis, you need to reach a mass audience. Ines Yabar’s work is meant to tackle the spread of misinformation and the lack of resources for vulnerable citizens. Just 25 years old, Ines helped to create makesense tv, a subscription-based service that regularly provides people with the accurate, helpful information about COVID-19 that they want and need. Although Makesense TV is based in France, the service has also been made available in English to appeal to a broader audience.
Additionally, through Inés’ work with TECHO, an organization that matches young volunteers to communities in need across Latin America (including in her native Peru), she contributed to the creation of a COVID-19 FAQ page, complete with information, best practices and ways for disadvantaged communities to protect themselves. She is also a part of the “Heal the World” initiative led by Life Vest Inside, which aims to alleviate people’s stress and anxiety through kindness and positivity.
7.Nourhene Mahmoudi (Italy)
Outbreak of Generosity
What if the infectious spread of disease is met by an even more contagious sense of compassion? The spread of COVID-19 in Italy has upended the lives of many in the country. After seeing the increasing death rates, the sudden and complete lockdowns, and the increasing number of isolated and vulnerable peoples, Nourhene Mahmoudi felt compelled to act to support his nation. On 16 March 2020, he and other young volunteers launched Outbreak of Generosity, supported by the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations (FEMYSO), an NGO that represents 33 Member organizations in 20 European nations and aims to empower young people to better their communities and nations. After undergoing an advocacy training, the Outbreak of Generosity campaign was officially launched, alongside a comprehensive toolkit (translated into 14 languages) that aims to help mobilize youth to provide help to vulnerable communities in a safe and proactive manner. With volunteers from 12 different countries and a strong social media presence, Outbreak of Generosity has been able to help and inspire a large number of people in Europe.
8.Ndlovu Youth Choir (South Africa)
Using entertainment to raise awarenessThe arts may seem like a luxury at a time of crisis when, in fact, performances can be part of the solution. Some young people have used their creative talents to support the COVID-19 response. The novel nature of the virus has caused a spread of speculation and unverified information regarding the virus’ spread, symptoms and potential treatments. The Ndlovu Youth Choir, a South African youth choir known for reaching the finale of America’s Got Talent last year, composed, performed and filmed a musical rendition of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) coronavirus safety advice. Featuring translations of certain key points in various South African languages, the choir composed this song to ensure that the various communities in their country were well informed and safe during the spread of this outbreak. The video, posted on Twitter, was even shared by Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Secretary-General!
9.Xian Lu the ‘Raincoat Girl’ (China)
Cooking for Wuhan’s medical professionals
The focus of the response is always the patients, but their lives could not be saved without the heroic health workers who risk their own safety to help others. In Wuhan, between the long working hours and closed restaurants, medical professionals are rarely able to eat warm, home cooked meals. This inspired 24-year old Xian Lu to move to Wuhan and volunteer to cook meals for the city’s medical staff, despite the danger to her health. In 40 days, she cooked over 20,000 meals, often cooking up to 400 meals a day. Affectionately known as “Raincoat Girl” due to her attire while out in the city, she has become a viral sensation in China, and an inspiration to many around the world, young and old alike.
Awareness and hand washing campaigns
Water and soap are among the most powerful weapons to fight the coronavirus. In Haiti, Scout groups are working to support the country to combat the spread of this virus. As many communities struggle to access clean water and information on the virus, the Scouts have been traveling to and around the capital, Port-au-Prince, to reach out to people directly. Drawing people to them by singing catchy songs made to highlight preventive measures and symptoms, the Scouts have been carrying around portable sinks and installing hand washing stations to help give Haitians more alternatives to contaminated water sources. These Scouts hope that these measures will help combat the spread of the virus and encourage people to be aware of the measures that they can take to contribute.