Coronavirus response must not kill the futures of Ireland’s young

Caveat: We owe it to young people to try to avoid restricting employment options

Unemployment figures for August paint a stark picture of the uncertain future facing up to 40% of our young people as the battle to contain coronavirus continues. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Unemployment figures for August paint a stark picture of the uncertain future facing up to 40% of our young people as the battle to contain coronavirus continues. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

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Regardless of whether you view the pandemic from a medical or economic perspective – or ideally, both – it is obvious Ireland is in a critical phase.

Only the wilfully blind would deny this reality. These are stormy waters. So it must be all hands on deck as we try to steer through the narrow strait between the Scylla of virus resurgence and the Charybdis of economic destruction.

Ronan Glynn, the State’s acting chief medical officer, said on Wednesday that his approach will not be swayed by concern for the “small but significant” part of the economy that has been shut down in Dublin to fight the virus, and which may yet be shut down elsewhere. That is a medical perspective and as the senior State official in charge of public health, Glynn ought to have no other.

But for those who also try to look at things from an economic perspective, and who desire more nuance in how the medical advice is translated into action by policymakers, another peril looms ominously on the horizon: youth unemployment and its disastrous long-term social and economic effects.

The old face a worrying time ahead as they try to avoid infection knowing their lives may be at risk. But the young also have much on the line: their way of life for years ahead. If the virus response is too draconian, and if the effectiveness of the lockdown lumphammer is too often preferred over the efficiency of the chisel, the problem of youth unemployment will be exacerbated now with scarring effects for a long time to come.

As always, young people from modest backgrounds are most at risk. Where do young people work? Many from more advantaged backgrounds are employed in technology or sectors where working from home is just an inconvenience, a hiatus from the craic.

But for many others with less obvious prospects, they work in the bars, restaurants, hotels, gyms, sports and music venues that are, to varying degrees in various places, bearing the brunt of the policy response.

Industry figures suggest that 10,600 jobs for 15 to 24 year-olds are at risk in the hospitality sector in Dublin alone. For some of those young people, having a job may be all that stands between the dignity and stability of self-reliance, and the ennui and temptation of idleness that could lead to god knows what.

You could overwhelm a landfill with all the empirical, expert reports proving the links between youth unemployment and future crime, drug addiction, long-term poverty and deprivation.

This is one reason why so many people are howling at doctors and scientists to dig deeper into the data and devise more nuanced response measures. From a purely medical perspective, it is logical to keep pulling the emergency brake on some sectors of the economy. But ministers have a responsibility to parse medical logic through economic and social reality, and demand refinement.

Academic excercise

The scale of what is at stake is sobering. The August unemployment figures from the Central Statistics Office showed that joblessness among 15 to 24 year -olds, using traditional measures, was 17.8 per cent. But when that figure is adjusted for Covid measures, such as the application of pandemic unemployment payments in shuttered sectors, it more than doubles to 37.8 per cent.

If close to four out of every ten teenagers and young adults who want a job cannot get one, then this State has far bigger problems ahead of it than its number of intensive care beds and ventilators.

If is difficult to understand why anybody on NPHET would dismiss an effort to track the original source of as many virus infections as possible as an “academic exercise”, as epidemiologist Philip Nolan did last week.

When virus numbers were lower in late summer, wouldn’t that sort of granular data have helped to identify specific hospitality operators, or the types or locations of operators, where infections rates were higher than the norm? Could more tailored responses have been developed earlier using this data?

Regional public health specialists in the Health Service Executive, who are best placed to track infection sources at a local level, were bolstered with seconded staff earlier in the crisis to help with tracing. Yet these staff were stood down over the summer and returned to their day jobs. They were not replaced.

Now the system is scrambling to scale back up again just as Ireland steers into a storm. They’re trying to replace the sail while a gale whips all around. It is incomprehensible why this is being done now and not before.

Has any arm of the State or academia attempted to survey virus infection rates among staff that work in sectors such as hospitality, and compared those rates to virus prevalence in the population as a whole? Wouldn’t that give a clearer picture of how much the virus spreads in these settings, instead of assuming that it is the central problem and restricting it wholesale without checking?

We owe it to young people, especially the modestly-qualified, to sieve every data point and to first exhaust every other policy response before jerking away their employment options to control the virus. It may be justifiable heading into an acute crisis period, but it cannot be the medium-term solution. The goal of policymaking has to be avoiding such crises in the first place.

I am one of what the economist David McWilliams calls the Pope’s children, born at almost exactly the same time that the late pontiff, John Paul II, visited this country in 1979. That means I am neither old nor young. My age group often struggles to understand the worries of those older than us. Meanwhile, invariably we are tempted to scoff at the fears of those younger.

But try to look at the virus response from their perspective. The young are blamed for spreading coronavirus, yet their workplaces and living options make it harder for them to avoid it.

We demand they live in a way that is anathema to youth to fight our immediate problems, while we are distracted from issues, such as housing and climate change, that will shape their futures long after the rest of us are gone.

Let’s not make things even harder for them if there are ways to avoid doing so.

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