WATCH: Young people around the world reflect on pandemic, hope for a better 2021

World

LONDON (Reuters) — While much of the focus of the pandemic has largely been on the elderly at high risk of being infected with COVID-19, members of the Gen Z — defined loosely as being born between the late 1990s to the early 2010s — also saw their worlds turned upside down in 2020.

Reuters interviewed young people in 10 different locations to examine how their lives had been altered by the coronavirus.

As they turn their sights towards 2021, members of this generation share concerns that their post-pandemic lives may have taken a hit from the virus, worse than their predecessors, the Millennials, who suffered from the recession after the 2008/09 global financial crisis.

Beyond the immediate damage to education and job prospects is the risk of what economists call “scarring,” where the knock-on effects do long-term harm to their income levels, access to training, career prospects and even mental well-being.

Here are their stories:

WUHAN, CHINA

XIONG FENG, 22, RECENT GRADUATE AND VOGUE DANCE TEACHER

Xiong Feng, a recent graduate, teaches Wuhan’s only class for vogue, a highly stylised dance form that was popularised by gay and transgender communities in New York in the 1980s. As the original epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, Wuhan locals agree the city suffered a deep trauma during the first quarter of 2020. The city’s surprise 76-day lockdown, which cut the city off from the rest of China overnight on January 23, began long before other countries felt the effects of the pandemic.

Xiong believes the pandemic should teach people to be more united.

“I think the world should have more peace and love, and people should not be fighting against one other anymore. Because now people are trying to overcome the same problem, so I think if people have problems to solve then they should sit down and discuss, and find a win-win solution together,” he said.

CHEONAN, SOUTH KOREA

LEE GA-HYEON, 17, BTS FAN AND HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT

While South Korea had early successes fighting the coronavirus, the third and strongest wave of new infections has completely driven the fandom of the superstar band life to the digital world in this “lost year.” School is conducted online, in this case exacerbating an already tough environment for those preparing for the annual university entrance exam – a rite of passage for high school students widely considered as a life-defining event in South Korea.

Lee Ga-hyeon hopes the exam would be held on time next year in a setting free of the coronavirus. It was delayed by a month in 2020 when nearly half a million candidates sat for the eight-hour exam wearing face masks and at desks divided by screens.

But her big wish for 2021 is to finally escape her bedroom about 100 km (62 miles) from Seoul and see her pop idols BTS in the flesh at a live event.

“BTS is like vitamins for me, but coronavirus took this away from me, which made me really angry. It’s very sad that this room is the only place where I can meet BTS. The fact that I even have to watch the year-end concert at home makes me really sad already,” she said.

CREMA, ITALY

ELISA DOSSENA, 23, STUDENT

At the start of 2020, Elisa Dossena had just turned 23 and was looking forward to getting an undergraduate degree and pursuing a masters from one of Italy’s most prestigious universities. Then Italy became the first European country hit by the pandemic. It turned her world upside down, putting her plans on hold and forcing her to become the de facto head of a stricken household.

The day before her graduation ceremony, the country went into its first day of lockdown, resulting in Dossena marking the significant event without the company of friends and relatives.

She is now studying remotely from the family home in Crema for a masters degree in management and hoping for a bit of normality in 2021.

“For 2021, I hope for a little bit of normality. I hope people can leave their homes freely. I hope it will be possible to go for a coffee with friends at the cafe. I hope it will be possible to return to the school desks, places of work and university. I don’t ask a lot but I hope for this,” she said.

PARIS, FRANCE

SOLENE TISSOT, 19, STUDENT

Alone in a tiny studio apartment in Paris, unable to leave the country to see her boyfriend, cut off from her friends, and uncertain about her future, Solene Tissot felt the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic building up inside her.

“We know full well that as human beings, we really need to see other people, we really need to socialise, and I think the lockdown really triggered a lot of distress for a lot of people,” said the 19-year-old student.

Tissot, who moved to Paris from her home in eastern France two years ago to study at the French capital’s Sciences-Po university, is now seeing a psychologist. She has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder – conditions she says were triggered by the loneliness brought on by COVID-19 lockdowns. Lockdown restrictions have taken a toll on the mental health of French youth. Between September and November this year, when a fresh lockdown was imposed in France, the percentage of 18 to 24 year olds with depression went up to 21% from 11%, according to the French public health authority.

Tissot no longer attends lectures in person because her university has cancelled them. Movement restrictions often make it unlawful for her to visit her friends at home.

She is learning Arabic, in preparation for the trip to Lebanon she hopes will go ahead next year.

“I feel like I’ve been deprived a little of my youth, and I hope that in 2021, I can take back a bit of my freedom and be able to see the world, as 20-year-olds do,” she said.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA

GALINA AKSELROD-GOLIKOVA, 23, STUDENT

In early 2020, Galina Akselrod-Golikova, 23, was preparing to travel from Moscow to Italy for a marketing and PR job at the Venice Biennale’s Russian pavilion.

But it never happened: the whole event was postponed, the job disappeared and, instead of travelling abroad, she ended up isolated from her friends and family in an apartment in Moscow as a tough lockdown suddenly began in April.

“2020 has shown how vulnerable we are and how we are not ready for anything, and I want us to have some calm support, attention and love for one another,” she said.

She has not scrambled to get a new job, and with time to reflect, she has realised that she wants to enroll for a masters degree in food studies in Rome next year.

Despite the upheaval, Akselrod-Golikova believes that the pandemic has brought many positive things into her life, though she said it was easier for younger people to adjust quickly.

“It would be great if humanity can understand that they are not almighty and all powerful and that our lives can be influenced by new factors at any moment. That we need to take much more care of our planet, that we need to pay attention to nature,” she said.

DIEPKLOOF TOWNSHIP, SOUTH AFRICA

NOMVULA MBATHA, 23, NATIONAL SABRE FENCER

When South African fencer Nomvula Mbatha finished top in a national women’s sabre competition in 2019, she secured a ticket to the Olympics through the African Championships in Egypt, set for April 2020. Then COVID-19 hit. All competitions were suspended and a strict lockdown imposed at the end of March curbed training for the 23-year old and her team.

Even when competitions resumed, Mbatha, ranked number one with 17 gold medals, faced enormous hurdles raising funds to attend the international events that would secure her a berth at the Tokyo Olympics, postponed to 2021. A member of the Soweto Fencing Club, she is one of the country’s next generation of star athletes struggling to raise cash to compete with the economy besieged by low growth, rapidly rising public debt and high unemployment, especially for young people.

“We were hoping like this year we’ll do more things, like attend nationals and stuff. We basically didn’t get to accomplish anything. This year was cancelled in our lives, I feel like we wasted a whole year doing nothing especially as sports people,” said Mbatha at her home in the Diepkloof township, southwest of Johannesburg.

“My short term goal for the 2021 is to go to the Zonal (qualifying) competition, compete. When I win there, I go to the Olympics Tokyo 2021,” she added.

NAIROBI, KENYA

JACKLINE BOSIBORI, 17, STUDENT AND NEW MOTHER

Kenyan teenager Jackline Bosibori wore baggy sweatshirts to hide her pregnancy from her mother as long as she could, reluctant to add to her family’s mounting troubles. She gave birth in November 2020.

Adolescent pregnancy rates climbed in Kenya and beyond as girls were forced to stay home while many parents still went to work. Kenya’s president in July ordered an investigation into rising reports of sexual abuse, including statutory rape, amidst the lockdown.

For Bosibori, school closures have made her dream of becoming a lawyer feel like a distant dream. Kenyan schools have been shut since March. Bosibori wants to return once classrooms fully reopen in January, but she worries about the fees.

“I hope 2021 will be a good year. I will go back to school to get what I wanted from school. And it will be a good year because if the vaccine will have been found, people will go back to normal life,” she said.

CAIRO, EGYPT

ABDULLAH EL-BERRY, 22, SPORTS JOURNALIST TRAINEE

Abdullah El-Berry, a 22-year-old sports journalist trainee, entered 2020 on a rough note.

A severe knee injury required daily physiotherapy and seriously impacted his three-hour commute to Cairo from his home in the Delta city of Shebine al-Qanatir. After the pandemic hit, he could not continue his physiotherapy as Egypt’s hospitals were overran with patients. He could not present his graduation project or attend his long-awaited graduation ceremony. Sports were also suspended. He has little optimism for 2021.

“Given the current circumstances, things (in 2021) will change for the worse, definitely, (especially) for people like me, or fresh graduates, or those who have just completed their military conscription. We already struggle to find a job. Now, many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus the economic crisis. It will definitely impact us all,” he said.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL

JOAO VITOR CAVALCANTE, 19, FORMER PROFESSIONAL CYCLIST

Joao Vitor Cavalcante, 19, had trained hard throughout 2019 on his budding career as a professional cyclist.

He thought 2020 would be his best year by far, but the coronavirus pandemic upended that dream, prompting him to take up a job at a car repair shop and ditching aspirations for a career in cycling. Cavalcante is one of millions of Brazilian Gen Zs who have had to drastically change their life aspirations due to the pandemic’s effect on the economy.

According to a survey financed by several Brazilian nonprofits, about 23% of Brazilians between 15 and 29 years old looked for new ways to make up lost income during the pandemic. About 60% signed up for emergency government payments, which handed out more than half of Brazil’s minimum wage to any citizen without a formal job.

For Cavalcante, there was no other option. His parents were forced to shut down the family clothing store during the first few months of the pandemic and his sponsor left him when cycling competitions were cancelled. His uncle, aware of the economic constraints, gave him a job at his car repair shop.

Still, Cavalcante remains optimistic for the new year ahead.

“I believe that 2021 will be better. We need to pay attention to the vaccine that is coming. I’m going to work, I already have some courses scheduled and I intend to return to cycling training,” he said.

MCFARLAND, CALIFORNIA, U.S.A.

VALERIA MURGUIA, 21, STUDENT

Valeria Murguia was finishing up her junior year at California State University, Fresno, studying communications and working part time at the campus health center when the pandemic hit. All of a sudden, classes went online and her modest income earned crafting social media messages to help students stay healthy, evaporated.

She was forced to move back home in a small farming town and concentrated on her schoolwork. She also learned how to build websites, improved her graphic design skills and studied event planning. Over the summer, she worked side-by-side with her parents, both immigrants from Mexico, picking grapes in California’s Central Valley vineyards.

“Back in April, May, I was at a really bad state in my mind. I had really given up on school. I didn’t want to look for a new job. I had just given up on my dreams and hopes” she said.

Murguia will graduate in May next year into a tight job market, but remains optimistic.

“I really hope the world starts to move back to how it used to be. I hope vaccinations are a success and everyone who lost their job could find a new one or get the one they had. I hope schools open again so kids could go back to school. I really hope I could get to graduate and attend my ceremony. And I just hope that life could just go back to normal and we could put this back,” she said.

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