The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people may not be known for years, but the lives of teens are being affected around the world.
We asked teens from three countries how their lives have changed over the past two years. Here are their stories:
Ariana Hellman, 16 years old, New York City, USA
When the pandemic hit New York in 2020, Ariana Hellman was horrified — not that she had contracted the virus but that her family had discovered her secret. Ariana carefully concealed the eating disorder that had led to her weight dropping to 82 pounds.
She said, “I was looking at TikTok videos where the girls were so skinny. I could see my ribs and I loved it.”
The pandemic brought her siblings home from university. Her father was working from home remotely. Her mother, a physician and scientist, was busy supervising cancer patients at Sloan Kettering Hospital. Ariana, sick with anxiety, knew her secret couldn’t last.
“I felt so lonely,” she said. “I really wanted to tell someone. I wanted to empty everything out.”
One night, her mother discovered vomiting in the toilet bowl. After tearful conversations that lasted all night, Ariana got medical help, including visits to a doctor in adolescent medicine.
“She was testing my urine. There’s a certain chemical that detects whether you’re vomiting or not. She’ll draw blood. She’s weighing me.”
Last summer, anxious Ariana kept her eye on two sets of numbers: New York’s COVID-19 cases and the numbers on her weight scale.
“When I was forced to recover, I started to recover. I could even feel my fingers getting fatter. I cried a lot.”
And there was the added stress of being racist as a Chinese American. Sometimes, when shopping with her mother, they were accused of carrying the virus. She said her mother would yell at the racists, “Stop being a child.”
Ariana has one refuge: her artwork. She creates collages that express her anxiety, fear, loneliness and isolation.
She said, “One of the butterflies that flies out of my mouth… It’s about letting go of all my fears but one butterfly remains on my shoulder.”
“Even if your fears become your past, they are still a part of you.”
Max Fulham, 17, Dublin, Ireland
Max Fulham describes himself as an Irishman and a “global citizen”. Max has a disability due to a severe visual impairment from birth, he has no peripheral vision and poor eyesight on his right side. This shaped his ideas about how the world should work, Max says.
“If we relax and say, ‘I don’t care if the world is an unequal place,’ you say to people who struggle every day, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m more important than you,’ he said.
“I don’t want to live in this kind of society.”
When COVID-19 hit, his family moved from Dublin to their country bed and breakfast in County Wicklow. Max initially says he felt indifferent about the pandemic. He spent hours playing video games on his phone. But then he noticed that the virus infects the elderly.
“I saw the number of people dying in the intensive care unit, and I thought that would be bad for Ireland and bad for the world.”
Note that societal divisions develop. He said some people, who protested the restrictions, were socially aggressive. He also observed daily good deeds, like his friend Calim, who was riding his bicycle to the homes of pensioners, and coming down from the groceries.
Before COVID-19, Max got involved in climate activism but the pandemic has given him more time to think. He began to establish relationships.
“My house is regularly flooded,” he said.
“People don’t associate the living room floods with the climate crisis.”
Today, he runs the social media for the Irish chapter of Fridays for Future, the global movement sparked by teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg. He has helped coordinate climate parties and protests in as many as 40 countries.
When it comes to the environment, he says, “I believe our generation will bend the arc of justice.”
Marie Ateno, 15 years old, Kibera, Kenya
While the coronavirus has put a strain on public health systems around the world, it has also affected the economic health of many countries, including Kenya.
Marie Ateno lives in Kibera, also known as one of the largest slums in Africa, just outside the capital, Nairobi. According to the United Nations, Kibera has an area of six square kilometers, and is home to nearly two million people. In Kibera, forget social distancing, masks and hand sanitizer.
“It’s hard to keep ourselves safe,” Mary said. “We live in overcrowded housing and the slums are full of rubbish. There is dirt everywhere you go.”
Mary’s father lost his job as a chef in a hotel and the family of seven was bankrupt for eight months. NGOs and charities filled the food void. But there was something Mary was more afraid of than the virus – the threat of rape while visiting the communal toilet.
Her family has to share a toilet with up to 30 other people every day. Young girls get up too early to try to get to the front of the line and sometimes a predatory male can lie in wait.
“It’s really scary for me,” she said.
“We try to go out in groups, there’s more protection. If something happens, we might die, get pregnant or have to stop school forever.”
With children in countries like Canada moving to online learning, millions of students in other countries have been left without access to things like laptops and the internet at home.
A UK-based NGO called Anno Africa has offered children safe spaces on afternoons and weekends. Arts and dance programs are offered. Marie signed up for ballet lessons, although she thought the dance “sounded strange.” But soon I became hooked.
“Actually, I’m kind of good,” she said.
“The ballet helped me express my feelings, my anger, my sadness. It helped me improve my confidence. Well my first performance was really great, everyone applauded and I felt like one of the best dancers who ever performed in the world.”
Written by Mary O’Connell
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