We have let anti-maskers, lockdown sceptics and far-right political groups appropriate an entirely legitimate position – that the government’s handling of the pandemic has devastated the livelihoods of young people and students. Although incredibly sad, only eight people under the age of 21 without underlying health conditions have passed away from COVID-19. Young people and students have borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic on pretty much every front, except the severity of the virus itself. Students have sat quietly and watched the world go by whilst ill mental health has become endemic, post-graduate unemployment has doubled, and we’ve been treated like criminals for seeing or making friends. This is not a radical, anti-lockdown perspective, because of course unprecedented measures were required when thousands were dying each day. But as a 1st year student looking at the effect of how we’ve been treated since September, it is hard to compute how there has been such little noise, protests, or media coverage of our position. We are being complicit in our own neglect.
Nearly three quarters of students have said that their mental health declined during the lockdown, a pattern any friendship group would be hard pressed to have avoided. A combination of the inherently exclusionary “rule of 6”; being punished for escaping a small university allocated ‘household’, often full of different and incompatible personalities; and spending months at home during the 2nd lockdown has leant itself to loneliness and social anxiety amongst students. Financially, two thirds of finalists feel negative about their job prospects, internships were cancelled, seasonal work over the summer is uncertain, and yet there is almost no support for students and post-graduates. The government has spent £340bn on the coronavirus crisis, although mostly for good reasons, failed to pay attention to our fees and student loans, disposable income and job prospects. All this when many are yet to meet a professor, yet to venture onto university grounds, and received an education a far cry from the £9,250 we’re wilfully paying. Mentally, financially, and academically, are we not worth it? When a relaxation of rules in student areas, a small cash injection, or reduction in fees are all plausible and financially insignificant measures, why are all two million of us students being ignored?
It appears to me that the media and the government have radicalised lockdown scepticism and the questioning of Boris Johnson’s policy. Way back in March and April of last year, fringe groups affiliated with the likes of Nigel Farage, who rebranded his Brexit Party into the anti-lockdown Reform UK group, were rightly ostracised as conspiracy theorists and anti-maskers. But the legacy of this has worn on, to such an extent that media outlets have kept endorsing a message which favours caution over social rationalism and has periodically blamed young people and students for surges in cases. Yet the media merely reflects much of public opinion, and we’ve been silent in changing it. The conflation of right-wing conspiracies with legitimate lockdown and policy discussion has been so successful that even university students and towns are fearful of participating in a debate which they deem heretical to both sides of the political establishment. Our willingness to be trod all over could mean that June 21st is postponed, but when will it end? We’ve borne the brunt for too long; we need to start being more selfish.
It’s reasonable, not radical, to say that the government’s neglect of young adults and students has been catastrophic for, primarily, our mental health. For those struggling, a further relaxation of the restrictions might create a mounting pressure to socialise, and a realisation of the extent to which our most formative years have been affected by the virus. But things usually do get worse before they get better. A delay to “Freedom Day” in less than a month’s time will prove how little young adults have made the government accountable for our social and economic welfare. Although our mental and financial health won’t heal overnight, the wounds of the last year will only deepen if we allow this neglect to continue.