The everyday life of young people has now been restricted by the coronavirus pandemic for two years. The personal and societal consequences are devastating — and will have impacts long into the future.
In the summer of 2021, when young people in Germany were hoping for a brief moment to be able to lead a reasonably normal life again, Annika (Eds.: name has been changed) was perhaps the happiest person in the world for one evening. In Cologne, the 17-year-old entered a club for the first time in her life, danced and forgot everything to do with masks, tests and quarantine for a few hours.
“It was something very special that I still like to think back to. Because everyone always tells you: ‘Enjoy your youth, do whatever you want.’ But that feeling of a young life is being lost right now. Someday our kids will ask us what we did when we were teenagers, and we will have to say: ‘We were at home.'”
Annika is typical of her age cohort, which is already being called “the corona generation” in some professional circles — an entire generation that is missing two of perhaps the best years of their lives. However, the Copsy Study on the pandemic and its effects on the psyche , conducted by the Hamburg-Eppendorf University Hospital, came to the conclusion that children and young people in Germany are doing a little better compared to the second COVID wave.
But the long-term effects of lockdown, contact restrictions, and online schooling on the “corona generation” will probably only be seen in a few years. “I’ve had my down phases too, but I’m feeling a little better now. Before the pandemic, I loved socializing and had plans every weekend. Now I like being at home too. It’s the way it is; we have accepted it relatively quickly,” says Annika.
No crisis-proof planning possible:
If everything works out, the young woman from the western city of Bonn will finish off her secondary school diploma in the summer. She dreams of an unforgettable graduation party and then wants to do a gap year for volunteer projects or youth work in Germany. If everything works out, that is. But that is exactly the painful lesson young people had to learn during the pandemic: there is no such thing as crisis-proof planning. Not for anything.
“We all have a certain fear, we feel a little uneasy when we look into the future. Because we don’t know — something will come up again, a new variant, for example. Maybe we can’t do what we want after all. There’s always this feeling of insecurity.”
Annika recently had boosters from her doctor Axel Gerschlauer. As always in the past few weeks and months, the pediatrician has his hands full. On this day, he is with a 17-year-old patient who had just tested positive for COVID and was crying after the result. She said that her life was terrible, she hadn’t been allowed to do anything for two years, she felt like a loser amidst the pandemic.
“I feel less anger than fatalism,” says Gerschlauer. “There is lethargy, there is disappointment, there is deep frustration.” It is clear to children and young people that nobody will help them and they no longer expect any support, according to the Bonn doctor’s analysis: “There’s just this lack of interest, and that’s what makes us all so wrecked.”
Pediatricians warn in vain:
Almost exactly a year ago, DW visited Gerschlauer in his practice. Even then, the doctor — who is also press spokesman for the regional pediatricians’ professional association — warned of the extent of the damage to young people. And has urged that a massive increase in the numbers of psychotherapists is needed. But nothing to that effect has happened. “I don’t even think that a single one has come along since we spoke a year ago,” Gerschlauer says.
The pediatrician continues to notice the same complaints coming from his young patients, which he calls “the three big classics”: sleep disorders, eating disorders, anxiety disorders. “Then there are young people who wet themselves again, we have a lot of school truancy and the young people still cut themselves because it works as a stress reliever for them.”
Omicron is everywhere in schools:
Gerschlauer says that he feels somewhat like his young patients: tired, worn out and jaded. The doctor carried out twelve PCR tests on this day, eleven of which were positive. Omicron is currently tearing through Germany’s schools — much more so than the delta variant did in the fourth wave. According to figures from the Conference of Ministers of Education, 6% of the students and 3% of the teachers are either infected or in quarantine right now.
“For two years we have been waiting for ventilation filters to come to schools, there have been ideas of a staggered start to school and more school buses. All the requirements were known from the beginning, but when it comes to children and young people, these have not been met. For two years, politicians have failed,” says Gerschlauer. And this is the basis for all the psychological problems and psychiatric illnesses that are now being diagnosed, he says.
What Gerschlauer observes is just the tip of the iceberg. His practice is in the south of Bonn, the former German capital, where there is a high quality of life overall and educated people living in good conditions. But how do children and young people who live in communities with socioeconomic difficulties, in cramped living conditions and with much higher infection rates have to suffer from the pandemic?
The pediatrician calls for a change in policy, now: “In the beginning we did containment. I was really proud of our country, we saw the terrible Italian conditions and it was clear: we don’t want people to die in ICUs, for lack of beds, ventilators and nurses. Now we’re still doing containment, but it’s not working.” One cannot contain omicron, and therefore it is time to switch from “containment” to “protection” in the fight against pandemics, he says.
Loss of control with consequences for the future:
The medical and psychological consequences of the COVID pandemic for children and young people are one thing, but how does the “corona generation” tick in contrast to their predecessors? How does the pandemic affect their character? Klaus Hurrelmann, a professor of public health and education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, has been studying younger generations for decades.
“Children and young people in the pandemic have the feeling that they no longer have any control over themselves. Nor are they able to control and plan their own lives and so they fall into a mental hole where they need support and help,” Hurrelmann says. “The more sensitive, the more pessimistic, the more overly cautious young people were before the pandemic, the more affected they are now.”
Almost 2.3 million young people between the ages of 15 and 17 live in Germany. According to surveys, Hurrelmann assumes that around a third of them were made very insecure by the pandemic, their performance in schools has suffered greatly and major deficits have arisen.
Educational institutions can compensate for this in the short run, but in the long run companies, businesses and training entities will have a Herculean task in preparing the generation for the future. It starts with reintroducing young people to life in the analogue world.
Most important phase of life disrupted by pandemic:
According to the youth researcher, if digital platforms are the only medium for making contacts over a period of two years, this can lead to restrictions in personal development over such a long period of time: “I can’t smell the other person, I can’t touch them. I can’t notice their aura, or how they move. This impoverishment of impulses then, in the case of real contact in physical presence, means that the young people do not even know how to behave, how to comport themselves, how to look others in the eye.”
Researcher Hurrelmann says that there are also winners from the COVID pandemic among young people: those with the right mentality who have actively adapted, quickly internalized the new rules and reorganized their everyday lives on their own initiative in order to regain control.
But if there is a phase of life in which a pandemic can have fatal consequences, it is above all puberty: “It is a central development phase with questions such as: Where are my limits? How do I break away from my parents? And who am I at all? The first intimate contacts that arise at this age are also postponed. Adults have made this journey, have found each other and know their strengths and weaknesses. All of this is blocked by corona and that of course depresses the mood.”