Reclaiming the Voice of Youth: Pandemic Politics and Law and the Invisibility of Youth

Written by and

2019 will go down in history as the year with the largest transnational youth-led movement of all times: the global climate protests spearheaded by Fridays for Future. A year later, in the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis, the voices of these millions of politically active young people are virtually absent in all important sites of pandemic politics, such as public debates, parliaments, and international institutions. If the COVID-19 pandemic has made one thing abundantly clear it is that the political representation of youth beyond the climate movement stands on very shaky grounds. In this blogpost, we argue that there is an acute need to recognise the agency and creative will of young people in the context of political, legal, economic and societal responses to the pandemic. While international legal scholars have already sought to expose and remedy the marginalisation of other groups such as elderly people (Lebret 2020), indigenous peoples, LGBTIQ+ people, and women, youth is still disturbingly sidelined (Holzscheiter 2019). Recognising both young people’s affectedness and their agency requires international law – as practice and as a scholarly discipline – to take into account the perspectives and experiences of young people in a systematic manner. And not only this: international law should actively advocate and defend the right to meaningful representation and participation of young people in pandemic politics and law, nationally and internationally.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Youth – global collective grievances

Today’s generation of youth is the largest the world has ever known. Of course, the boundaries of age to define youth or to delineate youth from children are not set in stone. However, the age between 15 and 24 years is most often used internationally when defining youth for statistical purposes. Beyond age as a defining criterion, youth as specific population group constitutes a broad array of living realities, opinions, privileges, and hard-ships (see for instance Miller Idriss 2018). Notwithstanding the heterogeneity of this group, we contend that the COVID-19 pandemic exposes three significant grievances that many if not most young people around the world share: first, while young people mostly experience light cases of COVID-19, the pandemic nevertheless severely affects their physical and mental health; secondly, young people are frequently projected to be the ‘lost generation’ that will suffer from the economic consequences of the pandemic for considerable time; and thirdly, young people are being systematically under-represented in pandemic politics and law.

Collateral damage on physical and mental health

About 11 months into the pandemic, there is ample evidence that it affects young people’s physical and mental health in a great many ways. The British Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warned the government of the United Kingdom that young people are under the risk of being particularly hit by the “collateral damage” of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same vein, a study by researchers from University College London found in July 2020 that more than half of the respondents aged 16 to 24 reported more levels of stress since the pandemic. Other scientific studies from different jurisdictions also exposed that young people are disproportionally affected by the pandemic, listing a broad range of psychiatric disorders in young people, including grief and solitude, as young people are especially dependent on social interactions (see studies from Innsbruck University, and also Liang et al 2020, Guessoum et al 2020). 

Lost generation

Numerous analyses anticipate that young people will bear the brunt of the global economic recession accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar to the 2008/2009 financial crisis, it is to be expected that youth unemployment, reduced life opportunities, poverty, and debt among young people will soar. Unsurprisingly, conclusions about the impact of these two global crises are strikingly similar. In 2011, a working paper by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the aftermath of the financial crisis concluded that “[y]outh are generally the first to lose their jobs in times of economic crises and the last to gain employment when the economy rebounds” (ILO 2011, v). In March 2020 the United Nations (UN) found that young people who were already “at a higher economic and social risk” before the pandemic are now, too, “disproportionately affected by unemployment” (UN 2020, 4), which is also supported by a report of the ILO. The same organization also estimated in August 2020 that COVID-19 disrupts the education of 90% of youth worldwide. Likewise, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) finds that “young people are more likely to fall into poverty” (OECD 2020, 7), drawing a clear line to the situation in and after the financial crisis.


Beyond the immediate effects of the pandemic on young people’s health and life opportunities, there is a third grievance that young people around the world confront: their invisibility in public debates and their underrepresentation in those national and international fora in which policies concerning the pandemic are debated and adopted. The UN Population Found (UNFPA) reports that many youth-led protests are severely inhibited by restrictions on the freedom of assembly and contact restrictions, limiting their outreach to policy-makers. Over and above that, youth-organisations are confronting financial challenges. The UNFPA warns that the very “survival” (UNFPA 2020, 9) of youth civil society organizations is threatened. In a global report this year the ILO and the European Youth Forum (EYF) present equally worrisome results as they found that one third of youth felt an impact on their right to participate in public affairs. Similarly, a study from the University of Hildesheim and Goethe University Frankfurt detects a certain loss of trust in public institutions among young people in Germany as they are excluded from decision-making processes in the pandemic.

All of these insights add-up to a consistent, yet disturbing picture: the impact of the pandemic on youth is “systematic, deep and disproportionate” (ILO 2020, 2). There is thus an acute need for young people – as those being affected by the pandemic in the short and in the long run – to be recognised neither as victims nor as un-ruly ‘rule-breakers’ but rather as agents, experts, and a source of inspiration in pandemic policies and law.

Youth engagement under difficult circumstances

In the face of the multiple adverse conditions that youth all around the world endure at present, it is all the more imperative to acclaim the efforts made by young people in response to the pandemic. Young people are increasingly tackling misinformation and are leading educational campaigns on the virus. Besides that, many young people are helping vulnerable groups in their community with their everyday needs. Moreover, a survey by the OECD found that more than half of youth-led organisations built infrastructure to support young people in coping with mental stress, meaning that young people themselves take care of their peers. And of course, to name a fourth, obvious but most crucial example, young people are working in the health care sector saving lives. Numerous more examples are at hand.

Beyond these hands-on contributions of young people mitigating the impact of the pandemic, they have sought to engage in legal and political debates on global responses and policies in the context of COVID-19. At this year’s session of the UN General Assembly, the German youth delegates advocated for the inclusion of education, mental health, work, security, and human rights of young people in the conversation, urging UN Member States to live up to their responsibility “to mitigate structural inequalities and discrimination” in a “youth-inclusive” manner. Israel’s youth delegates added that “the pandemic has highlighted an existing problem: young people are not yet part of decision-making processes on all levels”. Other youth delegates joined in. For further efforts see here and here.

Promise kept?

This somewhat gives the impression that youth are already participating in the global health regime and recognised as an important stakeholder. However, it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic is a magnifying glass for exposing the marginal influence of youth on global health policy-making. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) as the central international decision-making body on health matters is severely lagging behind in making youth participation a central organizing principle. It is profoundly worrying that young people are not represented in the WHO – not as youth delegates of member states, nor as members in the leadership team of the Director-General, nor as stakeholders. The backwardness of the WHO is also reflected in the fact that it only in 2018 issued a report on “Engaging Youth for Health and Sustainable Development”, almost 30 years after the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defined participation in all matters affecting them (Article 12.1) a human right for under-18s. In its 2018 report the WHO describes its relationship with youth most aptly when it states that the “WHO needs young people’s input” (WHO 2018, viii): there is a clear distinction, a dichotomy of inside and outside; there is the WHO, the “we”, so to speak, and its “others” being young people. The same is underlined by the fact that the WHO itself admits that efforts in participating with youth “are not guided by an overarching strategy” (WHO 2018, 4). Again, the WHO puts it aptly by confessing that it is perceived “as lagging behind several other UN agencies in terms of showing leadership for engaging with young people” (WHO 2018, 9). This status quo remains not unchallenged. Since 2013, the Youth Pre World Health Assembly organised by the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA) enables youth health advocates to connect and streamline common efforts to create an impact during the subsequent World Health Assembly (WHA). Through IFMSA’s status as recognised non-governmental organisation within the WHO, selected young people can directly approach member states during the WHA and participate in or sponsor official side events. While this along with other initiatives may be understood as progress in the struggle of youth-participation, it must be said that “much more must be done to position young people as equal stakeholders in the realisation of global, regional, and national goals in health” (Bulc et al. 2019).

It appears that calls for ensuring the active contribution of youth to pandemic politics and law originate from outside the WHO. In its resolution 2532, the UN Security Council acknowledges the role of young people, calling to ensure “the full, equal and meaningful participation of (…) youth in the development and implementation of an adequate and sustainable response to the pandemic” (operative paragraph 7). It also encouraged UN Member States “to support and integrate youth into decision-making processes” (operative paragraph 10) regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in its third youth, peace, and security resolution.

But will governments live up to these expectations? So far, we have seen youth at best as being addressed as victims of the pandemic, at worst as irresponsible party addicted delinquents responsible for accelerating the pandemic. Academia should take up the challenge and measure words against actions. Research on youth, COVID-19, and international law is lacking. Thus, decision-making processes in this regard are not sufficiently monitored. This becomes even more worrisome, as youth is only one of many categories of discrimination and marginalisation. Intersections (Crenshaw 1989) with other categories, for instance, disability or sexuality, require special attention. Moreover, as repeatedly highlighted, the pandemic increases existing inequalities. For instance, a survey conducted by UNESCO, UNICEF, and World Bank found that “low-income countries were more likely to have delayed school opening” (UNESCO et al 2020, 7) and that the same did, generally, not deploy effective alternative methods of learning.

Having not only the distinct vulnerability but also the unique assets of youth in mind, pandemic politics and law should recognise and appreciate young people’s agency, expertise and perspective. Last year proved that greater youth-inclusion and participation is possible. Now, it is time not only to recognise that environment and health are inextricably linked but also that youth already is an integral stakeholder in global governance. Acknowledging this fact in the context of pandemic politics and law should be beyond discussion.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Leave a Comment

Comments for this post are closed


Professor Nolan says

December 3, 2020

This post's focus on youth engagement in governance is to be welcomed. However, given the breadth of issues touched on by the authors (including representation, political participation, and the agency of young people), the post’s lack of engagement with the wide-ranging academic work on these topics - that incidentally mirror many of the points made here - is somewhat regrettable. (Not least because the authors themselves have made excellent contributions to this body of work). Of course, this may well be due to the constraints of producing a short, pithy blog. However, it is worth emphasising that any increased IL scholarship engagement with youth and governance must pay adequate attention to the extensive work done on many of the issues flagged in the post in the context of children's rights (including in IHRL, legal theory, childhood studies). There is also a need to engage with growing multi-disciplinary academic work focused on children and the impacts of COVID in particular. Without adequate attention being paid to this pre-existing scholarship, there is a serious risk of greater IL engagement simply 'reinventing the wheel' in these areas and contributing to the sidelining of the large bodies of existing research that focuses on the issues addressed in this post (representation, participation, agency, 'childism', governance). As the authors are certainly aware, many of the post’s key proposals are strongly consistent with the arguments made by those working in children's rights (including with regard to the rights of older children/adolescents). What would be truly exciting would be IL engagement with ‘youth’ in a way that genuinely addresses with the complexity of that group in governance terms, given the adult-child dichotomy that poses a huge challenge to dealing with ‘youth-specific’ issues (as opposed to merely ‘older children’/’young adults’) in the context of IL and more broadly. It’ll be exciting to see how the authors move this work forward.