Shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Economist’s front page depicted the world with a “CLOSED” sign. The coronavirus pandemic has indeed halted business as usual and disrupted the lives of people around the world. Even though some countries are cautiously planning “re-opening”, still more than 80 per cent of the global workforce remain affected by lockdowns and movement restrictions. As the epicenter of the pandemic moves from continent to continent, a global recession of perhaps unprecedented scale is following suit. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that in the second quarter of 2020 working hours will decline by an equivalent of 305 million full-time jobs.
COVID-19 caused economic hardships will likely disproportionally affect young workers, as detailed in this Youth Rights & Voices Blog Post. For example, for students and young jobseekers alike, the current pause on hiring decisions has taken a particular high toll. This includes those in school and college relying on their summer job to finance their studies and planning their internship, as well as those preparing to leave school behind and looking for full time work.
However, any obstacle is often an unrecognized opportunity. Despite the dangers posed by the pandemic, young people are turning the crisis into an opportunity for collective action, carving out their own niche to support their communities as volunteers. For instance, a community organization based in South Sudan, #DefyHateNow, connects youth through digital means who collaborate to fight misinformation and raise awareness on coronavirus prevention and protection. Youth activists in Syria organize mask and hand sanitizers distribution campaigns – young people took a similar initiative in Nairobi’s Mathare slum. Young Chinese students and workers have been sourcing medical protective equipment to support frontline health care professionals. Similarly, in Canada, groups of volunteers are using 3-D printers to produce face shields and other protective equipment.
These are just a few of many examples how young people have channeled their creativity and compassion towards driving positive action. While volunteering often takes place in communities, mobilizing people willing to help at a large scale has become a national effort, too. In Egypt, 480,000 volunteers registered to support the distribution of facemasks and hygiene kits all over the country. In England, over 1 million people signed up at a volunteering scheme of the National Health Service and through local volunteering centers and charities, primarily to support vulnerable people confined to their homes.
This shows that volunteering not only connects people but also helps to overcome social exclusion. Keeping communities together, volunteering contributes to social cohesion and can support disadvantaged groups in face of poverty and during times of crises. UN Volunteers reports that the most comprehensive estimate of global volunteering today puts the global informal and formal volunteer workforce at 109 million full-time equivalent workers. Some 70 per cent of global volunteer activity occurs through informal (direct person-to-person) engagement, while 30 per cent takes place formally through non-profit organizations or various associations. The UN General Assembly resolution on Volunteering for 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlights the powerful contribution volunteerism plays for the implementation of the SDGs and encourages countries to “invest in measuring the scale and contribution of people’s voluntary efforts”.
As part of a UN wide effort to support volunteering, ILO is collaborating with UN Volunteers (UNV) on measuring the impact of volunteering and has conducted a global review of national best practices. The ILO also supports research on the relationship between volunteer work and labour market prospects for youth, as a contribution to the UNV-International Federation of the Red Cross Global Technical Meeting on Volunteering, which will take place later this year. “Volunteering plays an important role in promoting social justice and human and labour rights“, summarized Moussa Oumarou, ILO Deputy Director General for Field Operations and Partnerships, upon the signature of the ILO/UNV Memorandum of Understanding on 9 March 2020.
Volunteers are also contributing to the UN system’s COVID-19 response. To date, UNV has deployed already 6,000 volunteers with 50 UN partners. National UN Volunteers have joined efforts to mitigate the economic, social and health impacts of this crisis, and to safeguard progress made towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This entails working closely with national governments, community groups, the health sector and industry to respond to this crisis. For example, in South Africa, volunteers joined forces with national authorities to help with preparedness and response planning, train health workers and others on infection preventions measures and support the inclusion of vulnerable and marginalized groups.
In Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other opportunity. Business as usual might indeed be “closed” since the onset of COVID-19. No pandemic though can stop empathy and human ingenuity, which is why so many young people are unlocking the potential of volunteerism to do good and make a difference in their communities and beyond. Demonstrating how a rights-based, human-centred vision can translate into positive change in the everyday life, they are role models for all of us
by Amal Mowafy (ILO) and Jonas Bausch (ILO)
This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
To bring youth voices to the forefront of action and policy responses, the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth (DJY) and its partners are conducting a survey on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth rights. Participate in the survey now!