Youth, Partying and Coronavirus: How the UK’s Pandemic Response Failed Young People

, by Martin Penov

Youth, Partying and Coronavirus: How the UK's Pandemic Response Failed Young People

It is no secret that partying is a favourite pastime for many people, even in the middle of a crisis. As the COVID pandemic continues and countries go into months-long lockdowns, many young people have struggled to cope with isolation. The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been that large gatherings and parties have continued despite restrictions, and what was once a relatively niche scene has almost become the new norm. As students head to campuses, tensions have risen after confrontations with local police and universities who have tried to put an end to illegal gatherings. This of course has taken different forms across Europe but is especially evident in countries such as the UK. Traditionally praised for the level of education they provide, British universities have faced sharp criticism and resistance from their student bodies following the controversial decision to bring students back to campus, going against the advice of the scientific community. The result of this is perhaps predictable for many, as parties have remained a central part of student life, only moving from crowded nightclubs to overcrowded student halls. Despite continuous attempts by universities and local councils to stop these gatherings, many young people have rejected COVID guidelines, demanding the university experience they were promised before arriving. But what are the reasons for this and how can governments tackle the issue without antagonising their country’s youth?

A Young Crisis with an Old Response

When looking at the way young people have responded to COVID regulations, be it through protests, illegal partying, the rise in anxiety rates, one thing becomes clear: there is deep discontent with how things have been handled by national governments. The reasons for this are multiple and varied in nature. As the virus is most dangerous for older people, the young have started to question why they should be forced into isolation for something that hardly affects them, knowing that ultimately they will be the ones who will have to face the economic consequences of the repeated lockdowns. From a social point of view, young people have faced months of lockdown, many losing a year of their university life despite being convinced by universities to come back to campus on the false promise of face-to-face teaching, a decision made solely due to financial incentives due to the profit-driven nature of British higher education which heavily relies on students for its income. The consequences of this prolonged isolation can most clearly be seen in the increasingly deteriorating mental health among youth, which both governments and universities have utterly failed to address. From an economic point of view, it comes without saying that youth bare the brunt of most crises, and the current pandemic is no exception. As youth unemployment was already high before the pandemic, many have not benefited from the consecutive furlough schemes introduced by the government, while others have either been made redundant or have been unable to find much needed work due to the lockdown measures, putting low-income students at further risk of economic hardship and making them unable to fund their studies adequately. On top of this, the prognosed economic crisis that will follow after the pandemic is over will also disproportionately affect young graduates who are taking their first steps in a job market battered by more than a year of restrictions. Lastly, and perhaps most relevant, is the political dimension of all this discontent. From the onset of the pandemic, the major focus has been, logically, to protect the most vulnerable to the virus, namely the elderly. Politicians were fast to introduce measures to halt the spread of the virus, many of which have been or will be at the expense of the young, both figuratively and quite soon literally. It is not surprising then that so many have decided to ignore restrictions, especially when it comes to socialising. In the UK, the conservative government has always been at odds with youth, especially following the 2016 Brexit vote. The government’s last-minute approach to its pandemic response coupled with the disastrous decision to bring students into universities and hostile to youth decisions after Brexit such as dropping out of the Erasmus+ program have only helped to widen the rift between the young and the ruling class. In spite of this, no political party has stood up for the young, leading to many feeling like their voice is being ignored.

To Party or Not to Party?

Now that we have gotten the dry stuff out of the way and put things into context, it’s time to party! Or maybe not, as that surely won’t help with the ongoing pandemic. Even so, that still didn’t stop thousands of students across the UK from going to illegal parties right from the start of the academic year. Despite warnings from specialists, the government decided to give universities the greenlight to bring students back to campus, and the results have been awfully predictable. As thousands flocked to university towns, campuses became COVID hotspots within weeks, with the Fallowfield Campus of the University of Manchester, the UK’s biggest university, at the front row. Partying has always been a cornerstone of university life and many cities have prided themselves with their diverse and exciting nightlife. Many students even choose their university based on the quality of the local clubbing and music scene, and the much anticipated start of the academic year, known as “Freshers’ Week”, is full of such events with venues often exceeding capacity. This is often the first opportunity first year students have to get a taste of student life and make new friends, being regarded in a way as a rite of passage for the newcomers. This year things were different. The start of Freshers’ Week did not see clubs reopening, nor were indoor events free of restrictions. As the COVID cases among the student population increased, universities began putting entire halls of residence under quarantine and students were given new restrictions. The promised face-to-face teaching never came to be and soon the entire country was in lockdown again. Thus, many students decided to simply leave campus and go back home, especially international students whose countries were excluded from the travel corridor and spent up to a month in total in isolation. Those who remained, though, were not going to give up so easily. Many students had already gotten COVID due to the cramped living conditions of their university halls and many more grew resentful towards the government using them as a scapegoat after telling them to move there in the first place. Thus, parties continued as the trust in the government and universities’ approach to the pandemic utterly collapsed, leaving students alone, looking for any semblance of a university experience they could find. The response by university officials did not calm things even remotely as police were employed to patrol campuses and crack down on any illegal gatherings, further antagonising their student bodies. Many students faced fines for breaking COVID rules, and some decided to not come back after leaving for the holidays, especially international students. While many politicians expressed sympathy for young people, no party has stood up for them. As a result, they had to take things into their own hands. While most people go to parties in search of a likely unmemorable night of fun with friends, or occasionally something else, many also go to socialise and meet new people. COVID and spilled vodka were not the only things to spread at these gatherings, many ideas were also shared and connections between like-minded people were made. Protests ensued, rent strikes were called, buildings were occupied, campaigns were started and referendums against university administration were carried out. All of this coupled with increasing distrust of police who have been accused of abusing their power and ignored students’ concerns. The way the pandemic was handled may have made going to university, an already dauting experience at the best of times, even more uncertain and challenging than usual, but it also had the likely unwanted side-effect of making young people more politically engaged and distrusting of authorities.

A Challenge for a Generation

The past few years in the UK have been interesting to say the least. Following the incredibly controversial Brexit vote, young people’s overwhelmingly pro-European stance was ignored in favour of an increasingly ideological pursuit of isolationism. Now, as the country slowly sees the light at the end of the tunnel following a speedy vaccine rollout and easing of lockdown restrictions, it is time to ask ourselves what the lasting impact of this pandemic will be, especially when it concerns youth. The disastrous management of the initial stages of the pandemic at university campuses, possibly a result of the profit-driven model of higher education spearheaded by the incumbent Conservative Party, has only further diminished young people’s trust in the government and in the universities themselves. While countries may recover and society moves on, the consequences of these decisions will shape a generation.

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