COVID-19 Can Create A Lost Generation Of African Youth

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A lack of opportunity for Africa's swelling ranks of youths could spell trouble
A lack of opportunity for Africa's swelling ranks of youths could spell trouble

At the close of 2019 and into 2020, my philanthropic foundation carried out a unique study across 14 different African nations; a survey designed to scientifically measure and track the attitudes, ambitions and concerns of our continent’s young people who collectively form the world’s largest youth demographic. In the process, we generated data that otherwise didn’t exist and created a bellwether for the rest of the world as to the present state and future trajectory of the global south.

At the time, two-thirds (65%) of the 4,200+ respondents to our survey suggested that we were facing the dawn of an African Century and 72% reported to be confident about their financial futures, revealing an incredible "Afro-Optimism" that caught the world off guard.

Indeed it was reported that the majority polled, despite facing varying degrees of affliction, such as war and conflict, political corruption, lack of employment opportunity and access to globally competitive education, believed their future was here, in Africa.

The numbers back their sentiments. Africa’s GDP growth was projected to accelerate to 4.0% in 2019 and another 4.1% in 2020. Improved economic development across Africa was forecast to be broad, nonetheless with variations across economies.

The future looked bright. But that was then. COVID-19 is now.

Despite our future potential as a geo-commercial and political power in the world, Africa faces diverse and escalating challenges, each exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our population of 1.3 billion has experienced a third wave of infections since May, straining those on its frontlines across Africa, a continent still struggling with the least amount of vaccines and the weakest healthcare systems.

The virus continues to dramatically compound already disproportional conditions of extreme poverty when contrasted with the global north. And what’s worse? Our African Youth Survey of 2021, presently being compiled, suggests that if not unabated, COVID-19 will stunt Africa’s trajectory and compel us to remain at the mercy of former colonial powers and rising superpowers. Our "Generation-19," if you will, will be a generation lost.

Let’s look at the facts. Our Survey suggests that for nearly 40% of our young people, COVID-19 forced a startling pause to education; a dire situation in a competitive globalizing environment. To-date, UNICEF reports that around 70 million across Eastern and Southern Africa are currently not in school, for example.

Nearly two in 10 (19%) became unemployed as a socio-economic ramification of the pandemic; 18% were forced to move back home and nearly one in 10 (7%) were forced to enter the informal economy to pay their bills as a result of the ongoing pandemic. We also need to consider this in the context that a large percentage of this demographic wasn’t employed in the first place.

Our African Youth Survey has further revealed that fake news and misinformation about COVID-19 is rife and is perpetuating its spread. Over half (58%) polled believe the death toll thus far reported by news outlets has been exaggerated to further political agendas, with 65% suggesting that the virus has been deliberately dispersed. Almost four in 10 (37%) believe that young people are immune to the disease and 34% contend that 5G technology has been contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

The most tragic finding of all: today, 39% of Africa’s youth suggest they would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine, if given the opportunity.

This is the single biggest concern, in my view. So what our research shows is that even if the vaccine supply and logistic challenges would be overcome, we still need to convince people to get vaccinated.

None of us, in Africa and around the world, are safe until all of us are safe. An Africa that doesn’t get vaccinated is dangerous to itself and to the rest of the world.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) has just reported that our continent’s access to vaccines has tripled in the last week, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to convince our citizens to take the vaccine.

This huge information gap must be tackled through an effective and continent-wide public information and educational campaign. If we do not address the viral spread of fake news, our governments will bear much responsibility for the threat of a lost generation.

The WHO, AU, UN, African governments and health authorities, together with vaccine manufacturers and importantly, the media must work together on an African-wide public information campaign that will educate young people and adults, provide simple and clear messages about the importance of vaccination, it’s safety and effectiveness, and also to counter misinformation and fake news.

Religious groups are important influencers in Africa and our Survey shows that they are the most trusted leaders on the continent. Thus it is integral that Africa governments and public health institutions deploy a multi-layered approach to vaccine hesitancy, which includes collaborating with faith-based groups as well as community gatekeepers to reach vulnerable populations.

Global companies like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are failing in their responsibility to address fake news and conspiracy theories. There is no doubt that fake news is proliferated by these platforms and young people, especially young Africans, are more vulnerable to misinformation about COVID-19.

Today social media is the second biggest source of news for young Africans. Therefore Facebook can no longer claim that its business model is about "helping friends stay in touch with each other." It is being used to spread misinformation on a vast scale that now threatens the social and economic future of our continent.

Social media companies should take the lead in promoting accurate messages around COVID-19 on their platforms and do so on their own cost. They have a moral obligation to do so. It is also an incredible opportunity for them to show how their platforms can be used for good.

If we do not address the challenges that fake news has created, we will get sick, we will stay sick and an African 21st century will remain a dream for an invisible generation of what should be, our brightest and best.

As reflected on the streets of South Africa in recent months, there is an unprecedented urgency to address these rifts. However, we must view this moment as an opportunity to address the longstanding divisions and infrastructural constraints to growth. It is up to all of us to rise to the occasion to lift the continent to a higher, more inclusive and sustainable growth path.

It is in our hands to create lasting change. There is no time to lose.

Ivor Ichikowitz is an African industrialist and philanthropist, sponsor of the acclaimed, annually held African Youth Survey (AYS), and one of New African’s 100 Most Influential Africans of 2020. The views expressed are his own.

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