Not a week goes by without seeing media coverage and public health messages taking young Canadians to task for partying.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic amped up in March, footage of young adults skirting the guidelines for a good time has earned admonishments from everyone, including the World Health Organization, deputy public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo and actor Ryan Reynolds.
The latest target? Ontario’s Western University students, as recent coverage of group socializing earned widespread online mockery; a confirmed outbreak this week grounded campus activities to a halt last Thursday.
But as people have noted, Western University’s cases has been wrongly malaligned as a party outbreak by officials.
National COVID-19 cases among young people has trended upwards in the summer and well into autumn. Twenty and 30-year-olds are the most likely age group to test positive, with people under 40 making up a majority of Ontario’s latest test batches.
In Quebec, Montreal Public Health Director Mylène Drouin has named young people ages 18 to 34 as a large chunk of COVID-19 cases.
But it’s currently impossible to say for sure whether partying is the leading cause of COVID-19 spread in Ontario: the cause of over half of Ontario’s COVID-19 cases are currently unknown.
Critics are pointing out that efforts to flatten the curve by blaming young people wholesale have also flattened public perception of the COVID-19 risk factors young people face.
An informal survey by Samantha Yammine, a neuroscientist and science communicator, indicates that young people’s pandemic concerns include confusing or fraught housing rules with roommates; social pressure from peers and family; needing high-risk jobs like supermarket cashiering because of poverty; isolation; and lastly, challenges with online or in-person schooling.
Emily Tayler, editor-in-chief of Western University’s student newspaper Western Gazette, says she’s noticed that media coverage of young people, particularly students on her campus, has created an unfair narrative about them; the majority of people she knows aren’t flouting the rules for fun and are very aware of what the optimal COVID-19 prevention measures are.
“I definitely don’t think students should be partying, by no means should that be out of the coverage,” the 21-year-old said. “But it needs to be covered in a way that isn’t just saying things like, ‘You’re a child, sit down and stop doing this.’ [Coverage should] actually look at things that are affecting students.”
Shared housing, Tayler noted, created a major exposure risk affecting peers she knows.
“A lot of my friends live in five-, six-person houses,” Tayler said. “They don’t have the same control or the options, as you’d have living with your family or living with one other person. If your roommate decides to go out to the bars, you’re screwed.”
Tayler wants to see more specific data about young people available in order to educate the public and affect policy change, a fact that Dr. Farah Mawani agrees with.
For the social and psychiatric epidemiologist, who works with Unity Health Toronto, it’s also important that public health messaging looks at the social inequities affecting certain populations of young people.
“Some of the messaging is based on assumptions that may not be true,” she said. “I think we really need to improve our understanding of the context and mental health of youth, as well as recognize that they have a wide range of experiences ... we need to put more energy into thinking about what the unique needs of youth are.”
Mawani listed four areas she sees social inequities increasing young people’s COVID-19 risks that should be researched and addressed:
Working on the front lines
Mawani and others have pointed out that young people on the front lines, for example, may be working high-contact jobs because they come from lower-income families and/or furthering their education.
“Often precarious jobs are in restaurants or stores. They now have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because they’re in positions interacting with more people,” she explained.
Early U.S. research backs this up, as a study in California found that low-paying jobs are linked to an increased COVID-19 risk.
While we don’t know age statistics on Canada’s front-line workers, StatsCan reports that a majority of young working Canadians go into customer service, food, and the sales industries.
Schools making unsafe decisions
Mawani said that many students who are kickstarting their school year in-person do not have full decision-making power for what safety protocol will be followed.
“They have to go by what’s offered, what decisions the provincial government, the school boards, and their individual schools are making,” she said, adding that not all youth have access to adequate technology or workspaces for online learning. “I have certainly heard from youth who are concerned with their safety in those environments.”
Large classroom sizes, overwhelmed teachers, inadequate infrastructure, and a general lack of organization are ongoing issues critics have raised with schools around the country.
Not acknowledging systemic racism
The novel coronavirus affects all people, but young Black, Indigenous, Canadians of colour could have different risk factors than white young people.
Until recently, Canada had no race data on COVID-19 cases. Multiple studies have shown that people of colour, particularly Black people, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with pre-existing barriers accessing to health-care system worsening their outcomes.
Watch: avoiding racism in the virtual health-care system. Story continues below.
“Having data on COVID race may give us some information, but it’s not sufficient,” Mawani said. “What is causing the differences? We generally tend to shy away from actually acknowledging that systemic racism is the really critical issue we need to better understand and respond to.”
Few public messages about young people have included migrant workers; young men have been among the known migrant worker deaths in Canada, including a 31-year-old and a 24-year-old in Ontario.
Young people are considered to be in their “prime working years,” with those under 35 making a sizeable chunk of the temporary foreign workforce.
They may be disenfranchised in other ways, Mawani noted, such as because of their racial identity and/or their migrant status, which further impacts their health outcomes. In the case of Canada-based migrant workers — who have faced several outbreaks, stigma, and widely reported poor living and work conditions — Mawani said they’re usually dealing with a range of challenges in their homelands.
“The reason we have racialized migrant workers in particularly risky employment conditions is because of systemic racism ... we have government policy that puts them at higher risk,” she said. “If your migration status is tied to your employment, and you’re working in an unsafe work environment, the risk of losing your job is also about losing your immigration status.”
How messaging can be more inclusive
If shame doesn’t work, how else can public health messaging curb community spread among young people?
In the Western Gazette’s student newsroom, Tayler has observed that their internal talks have led to coverage that shies away from placing individual blame, in order to better engage with their readers, including those who aren’t aware of COVID-19 risks or actively stay away from other news sources because of stigma.
“They hear something demeaning like, ‘Your child needs to stop doing this.’ That doesn’t really resonate with them,” she said.
Messages that imply socializing is bad can be re-framed as service-oriented, Mawani suggested: How can people meet their social needs safely, for example.
Going cold turkey on socializing because of shame may have adverse mental health effects. As Mawani and other experts have outlined, young adults are in a developmental period of intense transition, with more stressors and responsibilities than they had in childhood or adolescence.
“It’s a time when many life-long mental health issues start,” Mawani said. “So it’s extra important to look at what we can do to support them and make sure they have what they need to maintain their mental well-being.”
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