Australia's COVID-19 response is failing young people
17 June 2021 at 8:33 am
An entire generation of young people risk being left behind. There needs to be targeted initiatives and reforms to lift them back onto their feet, writes Thomas Feng.
Imagine growing up in an education system where you are taught that you can grow up to be anything you want to be, or if you work hard you’ll be rewarded by ascending into the middle class, only to see a pandemic disrupt your prospects, and dash your ambitions and dreams.
For young people today, there has never been a more difficult time to make a smooth transition from adolescence to adulthood, from education to employment and independence.
COVID-19 laid bare the inequalities and systemic failures of Australia. From the casualisation of our workforce, the increase in domestic violence, rising homelessness and a mental health crisis, the people already struggling bore the brunt of the financial and social burden.
At its most dangerous peak, there was swift support from all levels of government to keep people afloat: JobKeeper, people experiencing homelessness placed in hotels, an accelerated roll-out of telehealth.
Did Australia suddenly transform into a social democratic utopia? Briefly, for citizens inside our borders. For international students, Australians stuck overseas and migrants, support was (and continues to be) lacking.
Now, the federal government’s complacency and inability to take responsibility are bleeding into our own attitudes towards this pandemic, and are failing an entire generation of young people.
The vaccine roll-out? An utter disaster, particularly across the disability and aged care sectors.
Building fit-for-purpose quarantine hubs? Apparently above Scott Morrison’s paygrade.
Raising the rate of JobSeeker? A temporary boost before its decline all the way below the poverty line.
Young people will continue to pay the price for the ongoing pandemic, our lives put on hold with the Australian government’s inaction. Prior to the pandemic, we were already the first generation of young people to be worse off than our parents in at least a century. COVID-19 was the nail in the coffin there.
Young people were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. We were the first to lose jobs, our education was disrupted, and we missed out on experiences formative to molding our identities and adulthood; instead we were left with Zoom classes, video calls and social isolation.
So what about solutions?
In the immediate term, we should prioritise the roll-out of vaccines across essential services like hospitality, supermarkets, groceries and pharmacies, to protect workplaces and the predominantly young workers from future outbreaks.
There needs to be targeted initiatives and reforms to lift young people back onto their feet. From lowering the age of independence, raising the rate of JobSeeker above the poverty line, to creating better pathways from education to employment, there is an urgent need to support young people. And we should do so by involving and empowering young people to design and implement these reforms. Young people know young people best.
For the social sector, we should harness the deft expertise and grasp of digital technology and innovation that young people have. Our sector is built on human connection, relationships and care, so while COVID-19 continues to present a physical barrier, we should embrace the challenge and find new ways of connection and care. This could only serve to make our sector more relevant to young people, more accessible and inclusive to people outside metro and regional centres, and future-proof to further outbreaks.
We need to stop rewarding the Australian government for doing the bare minimum, and find a long-term, sustainable vision for Australia’s economy. Having just come out of another lockdown here in Melbourne, Australia’s approach for a closed-border, elimination strategy against COVID is a fragile illusion: unrealistic and unsustainable.
There is an opportunity and a need for other political parties and the social sector to present a viable and visionary alternative.
Australia has been spared from the global devastation this pandemic has brought. Despite six months in lockdown at home in Melbourne, we have not seen tens of thousands of new cases and deaths to the extent seen around the world.
We are a lucky country, but this luck cannot be wasted by complacency.
We need less marketing; we need more action.
This critical juncture will be remembered either as a moment when Australia failed its young people with its COVID-19 response, or stood up to the immediate and long-term challenges facing young people, Australia and our future prosperity.
Young people today and the generations following are counting on it.
This article is part of a monthly series, Youth Matters, a collaboration between Youth Affairs Council Victoria and Pro Bono Australia to inject the voices of young people into the social change sector.