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Youth bear brunt of COVID-19

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South Africa cannot expect to have a growing economy if young people are left behind.

That was the underlying message by the acting Director-General in the Department of Women, Youth and Person with Disabilities, Annette Griessel.

In her opening remarks during a webinar on the National Youth Policy review in the context of COVID-19 on Monday, she said young people take part in the economy. 

“We’re fighting a global pandemic, which is caused by a global health crisis and is affecting all parts of our society. Our own analysis is that the pandemic is reinforcing existing fault lines in society, including exacerbating inequality, poverty and unemployment.”

Citing a recent paper by the United Nations, Griessel said the research confirmed that COVID-19 would have a long-lasting socio-economic impact in all population groups including young people.

Therefore, she said, the pandemic offers an opportunity to create an all-inclusive economy and society, especially where youth is concerned.

“We must ensure that the youth is not left behind concerning health, economic and social relief measures that we’re currently introducing.

“The youth dividend is about ensuring that we proactively invest in young people to include them in the economy, to ensure they have an equal stake in the economy. But we can’t expect to have a growing economy when young people are left out and left behind.”

Griessel said the crux of the National Youth Policy is to serve as an instrument to enable government to think critically about what it can do to build a more inclusive and sustainable future for the youth.

Griessel believes that the pandemic and the recovery strategy should underpin the discussion and force government to think out of the box.

“This is the policy that belongs to the Department of Women, Youth and Person with Disabilities. This must be a policy that belongs to all of us, government and civil society and particularly must have full ownership of young people.”  

The webinar, which was held as part of Youth Month, also focused on the numerous consultations with stakeholders to map a clear policy direction, and to ensure the youth of South Africa develop positively and can adjust and thrive in this new reality.

Youth unemployment 

Speaking on behalf of Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the Head of Department, Mashile Mokono, said health has become the country’s number one priority in the face of Coronavirus, as they try to cushion the youth against the respiratory disease.

“Young people’s education is disrupted, those who were looking for jobs could no longer do so, and they became socially isolated and anxious… The youth are further locked out of the economy."

Mokono said the department has welcomed all the efforts, including the R500 billion relief to support vulnerable households, individuals and businesses from the effects of COVID-19.

Mokono said the government must amplify the voices of the youth and be supported in decision-making positions.

“Investment in young people is an investment in the future of our country, continent and the world.”

The department’s Deputy Minister, Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize, said the main challenge faced by youth is unemployment.

Meanwhile, those living with disability continue to face enormous challenges in the labour market.

“We know the results of lockdown will likely to intensify the problem and threaten livelihoods. Some people have started talking about the third pandemic, which will be the economic recovery.”

Therefore, she said the reduction of youth unemployment and breaking poverty should be a priority.

“Almost six million people want to work but don’t have a job, but the rate of youth unemployment is higher.”

Young people's many challenges

Senior policy analyst responsible for youth development in the Presidency of South Africa, Dr Bernice Hlagala, said other challenges faced by youngsters include mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, gender-based violence, poor sexual and reproductive health, as well as HIV prevalence.

“We still have problems like racism, tribalism and other forms of discrimination," Hlagala said.

Meanwhile, there is a high suicide rate of 13.4 per 100 000 youngsters.

“These challenges continue to affect young people and over and above that, we realise that there are serious challenges of resourcing youth development, where you find there are no human and financial resources to develop young people.”

Young people should find their voice

President and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), Professor Glenda Gray, said the youth often bear the brunt of global pandemics.

“If we go back and look at how the youth bore the brunt many times, for example, the legacy of apartheid, which limited their education and vocational potential.”

HIV has also affected young people, especially adolescent girls and young women, she said.

“Women and children also bear the burden of violence and patriarchy; they have double jeopardy when it comes to their sexual rights.”

Meanwhile, they have to battle mental issues, which are aggravated by alcohol abuse and the loss of hope.

“They will bear this impact for years to come. Their studies will also be interrupted and they will lose out on employment opportunities as the economy contracts," said Gray.

However, she said that this is a chance for youngsters to galvanise their power and forge ahead to be heard.

“We’re very worried about the issues of mental health and how it affects them.”

Gray believes that youth can get involved in the solutions, as the globe fights the war against COVID-19 and help to make a difference for years to come.  

“This is an important time for youth to use their power to change the direction of the world and to ask questions about our education system, health system, the lack of equity for youth, and their ability to safeguard their future and become resilient to poverty.”

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