As a young Nigerian who has lived in the United States for little over a year, I have mixed feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, worry, and hope during the global COVID-19 pandemic. I get anxious as the number of cases rapidly rise. The dilly-dallying of words and slow response by the U.S. government make me uncertain that we are doing enough. And, I spend a lot of time worrying about the spread of the virus in my own country of Nigeria, where the health and infrastructure systems may not be capable of coping with the pandemic.
Despite the infrastructural, technological, and economic capacity of the United States, I still see the devastating impact caused by the pandemic. The desolation of the people who have lost loved ones, the exhaustion of the front line workers, and the fears of those who have lost their jobs can all be seen on TV screens from the relative safety of our homes. I have never experienced such grim realities. It is tragic. This tragedy, however, paints an even grimmer picture not only for Nigeria but also for many other low- and middle-income countries around the world. Many of these countries were already experiencing health and socio-economic crises, and now, faced with the oncoming threat of COVID-19 and its potential long-term effects, they are likely to lose any gains they have made in recent years.
In the midst of all of this, I search for hope. As an Atlas Corps Fellow immersed in youth development, I get to meet many young people, such as the global YouthLead Ambassadors from the project I work on, YouthPower Learning, who are playing critical roles in their various countries to support their communities and help #StoptheSpread of COVID-19. When I think about the obstacles they face in this effort – especially in my own country – I am incredibly grateful for the luxuries I am afforded in America. I feel less vulnerable here because of access to three things that my peers back home are not likely to have: a safe environment to buy food and other necessities, a constant flow of electricity, and high-speed internet.
In Nigeria, while there are many grocery stores in urban settings, in villages people usually shop at open-air markets that do not have electricity and where social distancing is challenging at best. This creates an environment conducive to the rapid spread of this deadly virus. In the U.S., grocery stores not only play a critical role in sustaining communities, but they are also helping to curb the spread of COVID-19 by providing safe shopping environments.
Nigeria runs on generators. There is an average of nine hours of electricity in a day, and when occasionally the power stays on for longer without a blackout, people are genuinely surprised and wondering what’s going on. A friend of mine is a master’s student at a top university there. When I asked him what was happening with his classes, he said, “There are no online classes, bro! Where is the electricity? Where is the data (internet)? We are not prepared for such.” In contrast, here in the U.S., I do not think about what I need to get done while the power is on, because it is on all the time. The fact that I do not have to worry about a possible blackout or spending money on buying petrol or diesel to fuel a generator is comforting.
A friend living in Lagos recently told me it took him three days to download a 25GB file that took approximately 30 minutes to download here in the U.S. Some white-collar workers in Nigeria are resorting to using their mobile phones to keep up with work, not expecting to get reimbursement for the data fees. In contrast, with the availability and accessibility of high-speed internet, working from home is fairly convenient for most white-collar workers in the U.S. Another thought is that here in the U.S. a young entrepreneur could open an online store to sell their products, but, in Nigeria, it is simply not a valid option for most who are part of the informal workforce. In addition to increasing access to customers, efficiency, and overall productivity, quick, reliable internet has an added benefit of enabling access to a variety of entertainment options, which can be critical in preserving mental health and reducing stress during this crisis.
Despite not having these luxuries, young people in low- and middle-income countries are still accomplishing so much. My friend and COVID-19 survivor, Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, is the 2019 Commonwealth Young Person of the Year and founder of the Stand to End Rape Initiative, a non-profit organization advocating against sexual violence and providing psychosocial services to survivors of abuse. Since the start of this crisis, she has been using social media to share her experience with the virus and inspire others. Another group providing leadership in Nigeria is ÀTẸLẸẂỌ́, a youth-led organization that is engaged in a sensitization campaign about COVID-19 in the Yoruba language.
These are just two examples of what young people are doing to help their communities during the pandemic. This gives me hope. Young people around the world are valuable and mostly untapped resources that provide community leadership, innovation, solutions, and inspiration. As we grapple with the immediate health and socio-economic mitigation strategies, my wish is that these young community leaders give hope to and inspire others as well, because it is important for governments, institutions, and private employers to ensure that young people have a role in the rebuilding process. These times pose a lot of challenges, but we can turn those challenges into opportunities. At the end of it all, we will see new innovations and technologies that transform human physical and virtual interaction globally. I believe young people should be architects in co-designing that new reality. If they are not, we will be ignoring a valuable and proven resource to our own detriment.