The COVID-19 pandemic has had widespread social, political, and economic impacts including on education and employment, family life, and mental health and well-being. While headlines now are flooded with discussions on the production and rollout of a vaccine (as crucial as this is), the impact of confinement and social distancing measures as a direct result of the pandemic on routine immunisation programmes, is something less widely spoken about outside of the health sector. This is despite its non health-related implications.
People of varying ages are experiencing the negative impacts of COVID-19 differently. Yet, while it is young people who are among the more vulnerable to shocks like this based on precarious working conditions, sector fragility, and high job losses and wage cuts – it is the same youth stepping up and acting as change-makers. Young people are inclined to mobilise on the key issues they believe in. The recent climate strikes are a good example of this. Now, as we face spikes in vaccine hesitancy coupled with a pandemic related rise in people going un-vaccinated for common Vaccine Preventable Diseases (VPDs) - it is young people again who are stepping up to make a difference.
The Issue: Dropping Levels of Immunisation
The rise in vaccine hesitancy is not a particularly new phenomenon. Outbreaks of measles in Europe linked with under-vaccinated or non-vaccinated groups saw nearly 19,000 cases being reported between 2016 and 2017. What is a new phenomenon is the substantial drop being seen in the number of children completing the required vaccinations against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3). This has been linked to what could be the first time in 28 years the world sees a reduction in coverage. Along similar lines, thousands of infants between 3-18 months old in France failed to be vaccinated against illnesses like tetanus, polio, and meningitis.
After just eight weeks of lockdown in France alone, it is estimated that 123,000 children failed to be vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). This trend is not limited to just children and young people either. Disruptions like this run the risk of disease outbreaks, and increased stress levels on health systems already overwhelmed by the current pandemic. On top of this, they also pose severe challenges to the wider social issues we are facing. This includes social service and mental health related strains, the negative impact of outbreaks on working parents who are key to COVID-19 economic recovery, and early-childhood education to name a few.
One influential method to combat this has been the introduction of drive-through vaccination clinics. With childhood immunisation programmes being interrupted because of school closures, the Isle of Wight in the UK launched the new delivery system to ensure as many children as possible had their regular vaccinations unhindered. The method proved to be highly beneficial at a time when healthcare professionals were ringing alarm bells on the urgent need for vaccinations to be a priority.
The Youth Response: Change Agents in the Health Sector
Moving back to youth as change agents, ThinkYoung, the think tank focussed on youth, recently conducted a consultation with young people in the health sector actively involved in tackling vaccine hesitancy. The aim was to see how the pandemic impacted them individually, and to showcase their biggest concerns looking to the future. A reminder of the large scale-impact of the pandemic – some had their education interrupted, had lost their jobs or had hours and pay reduced. This is within a traditionally more ‘stable’ sector.
The biggest concerns expressed were on health and the economy, and more specifically the ability of public health systems and social services to respond to crises like this one. Because of this, they want to see evidence-based policies and interventions for COVID-19 recovery packages geared towards substantial change, instead of a return to the ‘old normal’.
Analysing the real-life situations and experiences of young people is crucial in creating impactful recovery interventions – as is taking into account their views and perspectives looking forward. Similarly, a holistic perspective on the cross cutting issues that hinder recovery (in this case the potential negative impacts of disease outbreaks from a lack of immunisation) is needed if we are to ‘build back better’. Combatting vaccine hesitancy is an important step here and the mission is driven by the dedication of young change-makers.
Despite the current uncertainty, young people are mobilising again to raise awareness. Take a look at the work of the Young Coalition for Vaccination and Prevention (YC4PV), a coalition of 30 young healthcare professionals engaged in healthcare or in health policy. The main objective of YC4PV is to advocate for the important role of vaccination and prevention across Europe, both at the EU and national level. Follow their work and welcome the efforts of young people working towards creating change for a better future.
 OECD. (2020). Youth and COVID-19: Response, Recovery and Resilience. Tackling Coronavirus (COVID-19) Contributing to a Global Effort. 15 June.
 WHO. (2020). WHO and UNICEF warn of a decline in vaccinations during COVID-19. 15 July 2020. News release. https://www.who.int/news/item/15-07-2020-who-and-unicef-warn-of-a-decline-in-vaccinations-during-covid-19
 York, J. (2020). Urgent call to catch up on vaccinations in France post-Covid. 17 June 2020. The Connexion. https://www.connexionfrance.com/French-news/Urgent-call-to-catch-up-on-vaccinations-in-France-post-Covid-19
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.