Why are there not more young people speaking out against lockdown? This is a question I asked myself recently, not because I am madly, rabidly against lockdown, but because I am more than a little concerned about the lack of say my generation has had in the past year about lockdown and what it means for us.
From the outset, we were left out of the conversation; it was expected that we would all stay in our homes for however long it took to eradicate the virus. Anyone who said otherwise was selfish or stupid, we thought. Back then we were all willing to sacrifice our livelihoods, our freedom, and our sanity to save lives. Many of us still are.That was before we realised the government was unwilling to close the airports or implement hotel quarantine – measures which, had they been implemented promptly and efficiently during the very first lockdown, might have prevented the never-ending limbo we are existing in at the moment. Now, over a year on from Varadkar’s initial address to the nation on the eve of the first lockdown, we are slowly beginning to revolt.
The change in the public mood was almost imperceptible at first. It coincided roughly with the relative success of the vaccination rollout and the government’s revelation that we would be having an “outdoor Summer” – a plan that would be fine in theory, but not in practice. And certainly not in Ireland, where it rains a lot and, more importantly, we do not have the facilities required to accommodate several million people, all determined to enjoy a taste of freedom after months of on-again-off-again lockdowns.
People Before Profit and the Social Democrats have seemingly just woken up to the fact that lockdown is not good for young people, and they have revised their stance on Zero Covid to argue in favour of easing restrictions. A People Before Profit member is even organising a protest on the grounds that the closure of Dublin’s Portobello Plaza, which was being used for outdoor revelry was “undemocratic.” They are correct, it is undemocratic, but these are the same people who only recently were castigating the government for not being strict enough?
Thanks to social media and the amplification of certain expert voices at the expense of others, lockdown is political. It has been from the outset. To oppose it is to be a bad person, and young people don’t want to be seen to be bad or selfish in this era of bleeding-heart liberalism. Would they rather campaign against their own interests than offend somebody? Yes, the evidence says. So we did, and the political parties usually thought of as being popular with young people went along with the absurd dichotomy – and described anyone who disagreed as selfish or far-right.
Meanwhile, thanks to months of inaction and shooting ourselves in the foot advocating for Zero Covid, young people and our political representatives let senior politicians in high profile positions away scot-free on issues like housing – which has only recently reappeared on the agenda. Had we been braver and spoken up earlier, all or some of this might have been prevented. By ‘this’ I mean the resulting mental health crisis, the housing crisis, the eternal shambles that is our healthcare system, and the general cloud of malaise hanging over the country like a bad omen. Of course, ‘this’ is affecting older people also, but younger people are suffering too, and, as is always the case in the country which James Joyce memorably called the sow that eats her own farrow, Irish governments are not good at listening to the interests of young people – or James Joyce it would seem.
As anyone under sixty-five will know, recessions in this country typically disproportionately affect the young, the so-called ‘squeezed middle,’ and the working class. I am in my mid-twenties, and I’ve already lived through one recession, during which I saw politicians and commentators alike fret and scratch their heads, worried only about how the lack of spending to allocate in this country would affect the ‘grey vote.’ By grey vote, I don’t mean elderly people in general; I mean the vocal and affluent few in their sixties and seventies who are pandered to by governments as a matter of routine.
Young people have very few options when it comes to political representation in this country. We don’t even have much of a presence in the mainstream media. We depend on good opposition parties and the goodwill of non-profit youth-focused organisations, which themselves are poorly funded. People Before Profit, the Social Democrats, and Sinn Féin will be kicking themselves for misjudging lockdown in years to come as they watch their voting base emigrate in their droves.
One wonders what older people would do if the roles were reversed and they were the ones required to sacrifice a year of their lives to protect young people? I think we know the answer to this one already. Older, financially secure people continue to vote against the interests of Ireland’s young people – their children and grandchildren, in many cases. That is not to say that all older people are the same; I’ve seen plenty of articles and news items featuring older people who are against the handling of Ireland’s long lockdown. Older libertarians get a lot of flak, but I’ll never forget the way they defended young people from accusations of selfishness flung at them as they tried to live their lives this past year. There’s a lot younger people can learn from those with more life experience – and perhaps the most important lesson is to be more assertive, not only with others but with each other.
We are to blame for our own misfortunes in a way. Many people my age and younger seem to subscribe to this very black and white view that anyone who criticises lockdown is a cold-hearted, evil person who wants the elderly and medically vulnerable to die. This is an extremely disingenuous and intellectually lazy thing to assert, not only because it is not true but because many people who NPHET consider medically vulnerable believe that closing down the country for a full year is excessive and will only do untold harm to all of us in the long run. Many experts agree.The Institute of Economic and Social Research, Ireland (ESRI), predicted in a study published last year that the pandemic would be “the greatest threat that the Irish economy has faced since the financial crisis.” It won’t be the likes of Pat Kenny who will shoulder this burden; it will be the young students he criticises frequently on his radio show for having parties during lockdown.
As ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit head, Pete Lunn, wrote in The Irish Times last October: “Multiple data sources show that younger adults have endured the biggest hit to mental wellbeing. On top of disproportionate income loss and unemployment, their social and relationship lives have been largely taken away. They report anxiety, low mood, and boredom. When opportunities arise, temptation is higher.”
“So the shape of the data over time does not reflect inevitable impacts of tiredness or complacency, but an active trade-off. People balance perceptions of risk to themselves and others against much-wanted opportunities to socialise and earn money.” Life goes on, in other words.
You don’t need to be an economist to know that after a year without the hospitality industry, as well as retail shutdowns, and job losses, Ireland will be plunged into a recession. The covid adjusted unemployment rate among young people aged 15-25 is almost 60%. To provide some perspective, it was 30.87% in 2012 following the nadir of the financial crash. If we don’t reopen soon we are screwed, to use the technical term.
It is sadly too late now to prevent any of the dire socio-economic consequences of these prolonged, poorly managed lockdowns. With the benefit of hindsight, we can all say that, yes, we should have done what other covid-free countries have done – ie. implement a short, extremely strict lockdown to protect our aforementioned shambolic health service. But we did not, or should I say they did not. Once the government and the opposition realised they had made a terrible error in not anticipating the virus’s impact, they seemed to leave governance to NPHET, who continue to advocate for one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. The only problem is they’re doing it to this day, long after the horse has bolted. The incompetence of all these people would be laughable if it were not for the fact they are paid so much and consequently will not suffer to the same extent as the rest of us.
Where are the young people speaking out against this lockdown which has cost them so much? I don’t mean government bashing, as young people are constantly criticising the government online, to varying degrees of effectiveness; I mean why aren’t they questioning more. Is it because they are not given the space – in column inches or otherwise – by the public sphere or the media? This could well be the case, as most columnists in the Irish public sphere are well past their thirties, with the exception of one or two, who seem to be suspiciously well-connected.
I have seen and heard several leaving cert students talking about the lack of schooling during lockdown and I have seen several parents, usually women, advocating for schools to reopen in their various newspaper columns. But what about young professionals or semi-employed undesirables like myself in our twenties? Who speaks for us, and why aren’t more of us sticking our necks out and telling the powers that be that we cannot take another decade of recession?
Analysing the reasons for Irish youths’ lack of initiative until now would require the expertise of someone with a Ph.D. in psychoanalysis and a working knowledge of Irish internet culture, and I’m not sure such a person exists. For now, I can only surmise that the many Zero Covid advocates of my generation will, in years to come, find themselves murmuring disconsolately as they are turned away from the pension pot, which, by the time many of us get to it, will be small.
Luckily, we seem to be slowly waking up to the possibility of this frightening future. Perhaps the poorly organised lockdown was the kick in the teeth we needed, although I would not go so far as to call it a blessing in disguise. We must demand better.