OPINION: Recovering from COVID-19 through greater youth economic inclusion

OPINION: Recovering from COVID-19 through greater youth economic inclusion

By Patrick Mutahi and Steven Rebello

Just on nine months since the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Egypt, more than 1,800,000 cases have been recorded in Africa, with 43,000 people losing their lives to the virus.

As many states continue to focus on the frontline battle, attention should also be paid to how current and future generations of young Africans have and will be affected by this pandemic.

Since 2019, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies have collaborated on studying ways of strengthening youth social and economic inclusion in Southern and East Africa.

The research, which focuses particularly on how South African and Kenyan youth have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, reflects on its implications for marginalised youth across the continent.

Key features of the South African government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic have included mass screenings, testing, contact tracing, as well as different levels of restrictions.

The most drastic of these restrictions included the announcement of a 21-day national lockdown, where all but essential service providers were restricted to their homes during this period, only being allowed to leave their homes to access essential services (e.g. healthcare, police services or food).

Followed by a month of still largely restrictive Level 2 measures, South Africa’s economic activity almost ground to a halt, with the country recording a 51% decline in GDP for the second quarter of 2020.

On March 26, 2020, the Kenyan government announced a 7 pm to 5 am curfew, which was revised on August 27 to 9 pm to 4 am to manage the spread of COVID-19.

It also announced restrictions of movement except for essential service providers.

While in-country travel restrictions were lifted on July 7, the night time curfew will remain in place until January 3, 2021.

About half a million people were sent on unpaid leave while 133,657 formal jobs were lost by April 2020.

President Uhuru Kenyatta warned that, by the end of 2020, over half a million Kenyans might have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

While South Africans and Kenyans of all ages and walks of life have been affected by COVID-19 and the accompanying restrictions, multiple studies by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have highlighted how youth are often the first and worst effected by health and economic crises – such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

These global reports highlighted that youth were often over-represented in the sectors of the economy that were more vulnerable to economic shocks.

Young women, aged between 18 and 24, were often worst affected, both due to the sectors within which they worked and the added gendered burden of childcare and family responsibilities during COVID restrictions.

Looking forward, the reports also suggested that youth unemployment rates may rise by as much as 10%, signaling that the youth unemployment rate may rise to 63% in South Africa.

Similarly, the rate of joblessness doubled two months after Kenya reported its first case of COVID-19 in March, rising to 10.4 per cent from 5.2 per cent.

The number of those unemployed increased to 4,637,164 between April and June this year compared to 2,329,176 during the same period last year.

According to the second quarter Labour Force Report, by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), the level of unemployment rose sharply amongst young people aged 20 to 29 years, as employers rushed to cut operational costs.

The direct impact on the lived realities of young people needs to be considered in conjunction with the budgetary effects of the pandemic, which will impact on how states may be able to support youth development.

In South Africa, finance minister Mboweni’s medium-term budget speech suggested that these effects could include a 10% increase in the country’s budget deficit, a 13% increase in gross debt and a 5% increase in debt repayment costs over the next five years, all of which are likely to be dealt with by departmental budget cuts.

Similar fiscal constraints are likely to also weigh heavily on Kenya’s ability to support youth development.

With these challenges in mind, why and how could the South African, Kenyan and other African states support youth economic inclusion in the pandemic and post-COVID eras?

Firstly, suggesting that youth inclusion should be prioritised does not suggest that other age groups should be neglected.

Prioritising youth economic inclusion recognises the dynamic nature of the global labour market and the need to create and provide further training programmes for emerging job opportunities and sectors.

This suggests that states should utilise the COVID pandemic as the much needed opportunity to greatly overhaul primary through to tertiary education systems, which continue to struggle to prepare young people for these opportunities.

Secondly, while youth are often viewed as holding the future of their countries in their hands, the reality is that they are the present, may be parents themselves, already raising future generations.

Prioritising youth inclusion may have multiplying effects across generations – where children, young people and their parents can be supported through their income.

Thirdly, greater youth (economic) inclusion is likely to require greater advocacy and political will.

States, the media, civil society, other actors and some young people themselves should work to move away from youth deficit or pathology narratives that often contribute to a neglect of young people’s needs.

And lastly, youth involvement in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how social media and WhatsApp can be powerful tools for coordinating communication and advocacy.

Youth have taken the lead in innovating and popularising these tools, which are rapidly becoming key components of both fighting the pandemic and building a new inclusive society.

We need to be looking to youth not just as beneficiaries but as a key stakeholder in the attempt to solve many of our intractable social problems.

Patrick Mutahi is a Research Fellow at Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies (CHRIPS), based in Kenya, while Steven Rebello is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), based in South Africa.