Global Takeaways

What have we learned about how youth civil society is responding to the COVID-19 crisis?

First of all, we cannot generalise.

There are huge differences across regions, between and within countries: youth civil society is enormously diverse, composed of groups, organisations and movements that are very different from each other. This diversity is precisely its value and richness, and what has helped inform the ways youth groups, organisations and movements have gone about responding to the problems that are most urgent in their contexts. At the global level we noticed the following patterns:

1. Youth-led groups, movements and organisations have been forced to look inwards and develop new ways of working.

Our activism has had its ups and downs, conditioned by quarantine and its restrictions. But we haven’t stopped moving towards our mission and vision as people, as a collective. We keep thinking, feeling and doing. The methods have changed, but not the heart of it. I am, we are still mobilising…


From Casa de Semillas in El Retiro, Colombia

Quarantine was a shared experience for many people around the world inviting us to become more aware of our internal environment. For many, COVID-19 emphasised a sense of loneliness and the need for community while also contributing to the destabilisation of our mental health. As Jimena from the Latin American team reflects, there is a power in going inwards and recognising what systems we replicate and sustain with our choices and actions.

Throughout all the regions, organisations, groups and movements showed an incredible capacity to reorient themselves and then respond with agility and flexibility in an uncertain context that requires experimenting, risk taking and boldness.

As Lia from the Oceania team stresses, youth organisations have close bonds with their communities – they often belong to the very same communities they seek to serve – so they have been able to act quickly, sensing needs, and gauging responses. Many youth organisations found the beneficial side of technology could be used, for example they organised political action and social solidarity campaigns through tools like Tik Tok and Instagram (see campaigns such as #LebanonProtests or #NiñasNoMadres).  

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2. The COVID-19 crisis put the spotlight on all the inequalities deeply rooted in our societies. Youth CSOs have been filling the gaps left by slow or oppressive government responses.

An initiative called “One Race” in Uganda has set up makeshift kitchens to provide meals for children as a way of curbing imminent malnutrition. Through the initiative, food and basic groceries are delivered to vulnerable households.



Quarantine found many young people ‘stuck’ at home in situations of domestic violence and abuse. Quarantine also meant that education and employment came to a standstill for many. The unemployment rate of young people is growing and the Europe research team found that young people will likely be among those taking on the biggest share of the economic burden generated by this crisis. 

For others, quarantine was not even an option. In countries in which large chunks of the economy is mostly informal, many jobs have disappeared with dire implications for those young people and families whose livelihoods depend on daily wages. Daniel, writing from a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, asks: is quarantine a right or a privilege?

Eric from Zimbabwe interacted with youth leaders across Africa, who reported that in many communities lockdown meant people going hungry because of their inability to work and earn an income to sustain themselves. In these contexts, as Daniel explains, the fight against COVID-19 became a fight for survival. Youth organisations have been stepping in to compensate for the inability of some governments to respond to the crisis appropriately.

The COVID-19 crisis has further evidenced structural injustice, sparking a moment of intense social mobilisation. In the United States, for example, Black people have been disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and racist violence by state and non-state actors, undeniable signs of the depths of systemic racism. Black & Indigenous Americans are experiencing the highest death tolls from COVID-19, with Black Americans dying twice as much due to the virus compared to Whites and Asians. While social distancing measures were imposed, widespread protests as part of the Black Lives Matters movement continued, reflecting an urgency for public debate and action against long-standing racist practices of the state and white supremacists in the US. This movement and the frustrations and anger felt by young people towards systemic racism and human rights violations quickly spread around the world.

Many young activists have shared concerns that their governments are using COVID-19 as a distraction while they attempt to pass laws which further restrict civic space and persecute human rights activists. In Colombia, human rights defenders, environmental activists and indigenous leaders have become more vulnerable during the lockdown: Indepax reports 176 human rights defenders have been killed in 2020 alone. In Zimbabwe, young people have reported that lockdown measures led to tighter restrictions towards protests and demonstrations in the country.

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3. Youth-led CSOs have been quick to respond in their communities and are building resilience from the ground up.

I’ve found that the pandemic has been an invitation to rely on each other for connection and support, as individuals and as communities, and that this interconnectedness and interdependence are key elements to our resilience during the pandemic.



All around the world, COVID-19 unmasked the way our social, educational, economic, and health systems are struggling. Eric from Zimbabwe, Daniel from Brazil and Aurona from Bangladesh report that government response was inadequate and the social support offered to vulnerable groups too weak to make any difference.  In overcrowded communities all around the world maintaining social distancing was impossible making it harder to reduce the spread of the virus. In Bangladesh, COVID-19 overlapped with monsoon seasons and triggered further food insecurity, already exacerbated by loss of income for informal workers due to lockdown restrictions. In many African countries, populations have experienced food shortages due to droughts. In these contexts some youth initiatives shifted their focus to providing basic needs such as food delivery, distribution of masks and hygiene products to support the most vulnerable. 

In the words of Mariana, a black community organiser from Rio, “The most vulnerable to the virus are the most vulnerable in general”. Daniel indicates that in Brazil black and brown communities are two times more at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 In The Netherlands, as described by Mirre, migrant and refugee communities struggled the most. Their need for a sense of community, relief, and life development couldn’t be answered by offering online courses to learn digital skills. In Sweden, permits to stay came to a halt for thousands of young asylum seekers. Her research shows how youth organisations have stepped in to provide for their basic needs, such as food and shelter, as well as education, language, sport, and mental healthcare support.

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4. COVID-19 has presented youth civil society with an opportunity to advocate for a more inclusive society. 

Amidst the pandemic, founded the African Legal Think Tank on Women’s Rights which carries out research, and offers consultancy, capacity building, provision of technical expertise and advocacy on women’s rights. The Think Tank has organised a series of consultations with different stakeholders to assess access to justice for women who might become victims of the preventive measures related to the pandemic.

Sodfa Daaji

If we are aware of the layers of inequalities built into the patriarchy of our societies, and further exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we realise that our societies need to change all the way from grassroots to the high-level decision-making spaces. Accordingly, resilience becomes a political act.



While youth groups, organisations and movements are refocusing their attention to provide emergency and relief work, many are doing their best to ensure that other important issues don’t lose visibility and momentum during COVID-19. For instance, Ting from China found that youth organisations have been  mobilising public attention in support of women frontline workers who are taking on the burden of community relief work without being supported or recognised by the government. In Bangladesh, Aurora reports of a youth group that recruited the “Hijra” (transgender) community to distribute masks as a strategy to change the public perception of this excluded social group. Rim, from the Africa research team, found that the COVID-19 crisis encouraged more transformative approaches to economic recovery focused on establishing self-dependent food systems managed at the community level. Meanwhile, Emilia, researching in North America, documents  an initiative led by youth from The Desta Black Youth Network in Montreal: a youth-led community-based food programme that brings meals to people at risk, resulting in trust building across communities.

In short, as the pandemic unfolds, many youth organisations and movements are asking: Could it be that as we unmask the failure of our structures, young people have an opportunity to heal them? 

The crisis has made us ever more aware of our interconnectedness: we cannot advocate for issues in silos. Instead, we must tap into our collective power and build wider narratives. Bonnie and Rim both argue that bringing in a gender and feminist lens towards the COVID-19 crisis is not only about recognising the role of women, but also aboutfundamentally and radically questioning oppressive systems which miss out on the richness and diversity present in our societies. In Australia, Lia interviewed ‘Democracy in Colour’, a racial and economic justice grassroots organisation run by people of colour that has been at the forefront of advocating for a more just governmental response. She reports of the institutionalised racism which ignores how minority groups are disproportionately affected by the virus and its political and economic implications. The push for inclusion and access that we are seeing globally makes it clear that we cannot create more resilient and healthy societies without having a wider diversity of people in positions of power. 

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