Scarred by 2020, Gen Z looks to a COVID-free future

·19-min read

(Reuters) - Lives that had been focussed on school, university, sports or even going to K-pop concerts vanished overnight for members of Gen Z as the global pandemic struck.

While a lot was heard about older people at risk from COVID-19, this younger generation - born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s - also saw their worlds turned upside down in 2020.

Reuters profiled 10 young people around the world to learn how their lives had been affected by the coronavirus.

Shut up in bedrooms - many forced to live with their parents - some went from being students, athletes and workers to caring for sick relatives and doing whatever they could to earn money to support families. One teen even became a mother. Like everything to do with the pandemic, nothing was equal. Some were hit harder than others, depending on personal circumstance, location and how quickly the virus was contained.

As they look towards 2021, members of Generation Z share concerns that their lives may have taken a worse hit from COVID-19 than their predecessors, the Millennials, suffered after the 2008/09 financial crisis. Beyond the immediate damage to education and job prospects is the risk of what economists call "scarring", or long-term harm to earnings, training, career prospects and even mental wellbeing.

Here are their stories:

CREMA, ITALY

At the start of 2020, Elisa Dossena had turned 23 and was looking forward to getting an undergraduate degree and pursuing a masters from one of Italy's most prestigious universities.

Then Italy became the first European country to be hit by the pandemic. It turned her world upside down, putting her plans on hold and forcing her to become the de facto head of a stricken household.

While Dossena was studying in Milan, COVID-19 began ravaging her family and relatives in the town of Crema about 50 km (30 miles) away in Italy's first "red zone" in the northern Lombardy region. She returned home to help.

Both her 59-year-old aunt and her 90-year-old grandmother succumbed to other illnesses and died after the virus weakened them. Her father had severe breathing difficulties, although it was never determined if COVID-19 was the cause.

"I had to take care of the house, I had to manage everything for everyone because my mother was busy looking after my father, busy with my grandma, helping my cousin when her parents were ill. So I felt a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility," she said.

"It was a very negative period for me. But it also made me grow a lot," said Dossena, sitting in the living room of her family home in Crema.

After a three-month lockdown in June, restrictions were lifted and Dossena could see her friends again.

But a constant fear of catching the coronavirus loomed like a dark cloud over them all, eliminating the tactile culture of hugs and kisses for which Italians are famous.

"People don't trust shaking hands, hugging or meeting new people," she said. "When I entered a closed space. I could feel the palpitations, the anxiety ... surely something changed."

A new spike of the virus in late autumn meant her graduation ceremony was held via webcam, denying her the extended family celebration that usually accompanies the personal milestone.

She is now studying remotely for a masters degree in management and hoping for just a bit of normality in 2021.

"I hope people can leave their homes freely. I hope it will be possible to go for a coffee with friends at the bar. I hope it will be possible to return to school desks, places of work and university," she said.

"I don't ask a lot but I hope for this."

(By Alex Fraser, Emily Roe and Phillip Pullella)

NAIROBI, KENYA

Kenyan teenager Jackline Bosibori wore baggy sweatshirts to hide her pregnancy from her mother as long as she could, reluctant to add to her family's troubles.

"If I was in school, I could have not been pregnant," the 17-year-old said.

For Bosibori, who gave birth in November, school closures defined 2020. Many Kenyan advocacy groups fear adolescent pregnancies increased as girls were forced to stay home while parents still went to work.

The father of her little girl – an adult – has avoided Bosibori's family since learning of the pregnancy. Kenya's president in July ordered an investigation into rising reports of sexual abuse, including statutory rape, amidst the lockdown.

For Bosibori, school closures have made her dream of becoming a lawyer seem far away.

"I feel I have not progressed in any way this year," laments Bosibori. "If I was in school, I could have improved in my goals."

The situation makes her anxious, she said from the one-room home where she lives with six other family members.

"There are people who lost jobs. There are students who will not go back to school; they have stayed out for a long time and have adapted to being at home," Bosibori explained as she took a break from studying while her baby slept.

Kenyan schools have been shut since March. Bosibori wants to return when they reopen in January, but she worries about the fees.

"My mom lost her job ... at this time, we don't have rent," she said. "I am stressed."

"2020 was a bad year to me and it was a good year to me,” Bosibori said. "It was a bad year to me because I got pregnant unexpectedly."

"But it was a good year to me because I delivered my baby and she is OK."

(By Ayenat Mersie, Monicah Mwangi and Jackson Njehia)

CHEONAN, SOUTH KOREA

Lee Ga-hyeon has a big wish for 2021 - to finally escape her bedroom in a city about 100 km (60 miles) from Seoul and see her pop idols BTS in person at a live event.

"BTS is like a vitamin for me, but the coronavirus took it from me which made me really angry," said 17-year-old Lee, in her room adorned with BTS photographs, lookalike dolls and a blanket with band member Jin's face on it.

The pandemic forced BTS to cancel a world tour in 2020 that would have taken the seven-member band through Asia, Europe and the United States, and its New Year's Eve concert will be online.

For Lee, there were no more trips to Seoul to see concerts and hang out with friends, and instead life has gone largely online, where South Korea's hyper-connectivity helped her host a YouTube channel showcasing BTS events from the past three years.

"It's very sad that this room is the only place where I can meet BTS," she said.

While the country had early successes fighting the pandemic, the third and strongest wave of infections has forced pop fans to embrace the digital world in this "lost year."

School is also online, making things even tougher for those preparing for the annual university entrance exam, a rite of passage seen as a life-defining event in South Korea.

Lee hopes the test will be held on time next year, free of the coronavirus. It was delayed by a month in 2020 when nearly half a million candidates sat for the eight-hour exam wearing face masks at desks divided by screens.

It was a year that reminded her how special it was to have friends even though they remained apart. But it left her hoping that the new year will allow her to pursue her dream of studying mass communications and law at university.

"Last year I spent a lot of time chatting with friends face-to-face on break time and lunch time, but I couldn't do it at all this year," said Lee. "I finally realized how precious that time was."

(By Minwoo Park and Daewoung Kim)

MCFARLAND, CALIFORNIA

Valeria Murguia was finishing her junior year at California State University, Fresno, studying communications and working part time at the campus health centre when the pandemic hit.

All of a sudden, classes went online and her modest income from crafting social media messages to help students stay healthy evaporated. Living in Fresno, a fast-growing city where housing costs were rising, became too expensive, so within a few weeks Murguia found herself back home with her parents in the small farming town of McFarland.

Like many college-age adults in the United States, Murguia's young life took a sombre turn as the pandemic raged on. She and her friends started taking their health more seriously, working harder at part-time jobs or on homework, and being more open to serious personal relationships.

At home, Murguia concentrated on schoolwork, and on skills she would need after graduation: she learned how to build websites, improved her graphic design proficiency and studied event planning. She also worked with her parents, both immigrants from Mexico, picking grapes in California's Central Valley vineyards.

"It made people more serious," she said of the pandemic, "not so loosey-goosey ... It's going to for sure leave a mark on our generation."

Murguia, now 21, will graduate in May into a tight job market. While the advertising business lost relatively fewer jobs than most other sectors, it has shown effectively no job growth since wider employment began recovering in May. And, employment in the civic and social organizations industry remains 30% below what it was in February.

She has no student debt, so will not bear that burden, however. And economists are increasingly optimistic about the outlook for 2021 and beyond, thanks to the rollout of vaccines for COVID-19. Still, the job market that awaits Murguia and others like her is nothing like it was before the pandemic, when the lowest unemployment rate in half a century meant many graduates had their pick of jobs.

Even so, Murguia is optimistic about her post-pandemic future.

"I'm really staying positive, because if I start looking at the negative things, I just start playing games in my head," she said. "And I don't want to end in that space."

(By Sandra Stojanovic, Jane Ross, Sharon Bernstein and Daniel Burns.)

WUHAN, CHINA

Xiong Feng, a 22-year-old graduate, teaches Wuhan's only class in Voguing, a highly stylized dance form popularised in U.S. gay and transgender communities in the late 1980s.

Wuhan's surprise 76-day lockdown, which cut the city off from the rest of China overnight on Jan. 23, began long before other countries began to feel the pain of the pandemic.

Xiong, like many other Gen Z people in Wuhan, saw his life, education and business thrown into turmoil. The pandemic meant he was unable to graduate alongside his classmates, and lockdown meant he lost the opportunity to form tight friendships at a formative time in his life.

"I think I've lost some friends. The relationship faded away because we didn't get in touch with each other during the epidemic," he said.

The city has now largely returned to normal though, after strict controls meant it has not reported a case since May.

For Wuhan's Gen Z, the economic outlook is perhaps better than for some of their peers abroad, as businesses and offices have reopened and China is set to become the only major economy to grow in 2021.

Local businesses in Wuhan this month told Reuters that the crowds were slowly but surely coming back, and young people – cooped up for months – were looking to spend more on hobbies and social experiences.

For those like Xiong embarking on a first solo business, the post-pandemic flurry has helped attract new customers. For others, including Chinese who study abroad, the pandemic has proved difficult despite China’s comparatively strong control over the disease.

Looking forward, Xiong hopes he can still be a trailblazer in the city's growing LGBT dance scene in 2021. His Voguing class has attracted more students since the lockdown was lifted, as people emphasise lifestyle and leisure.

"I hope I can establish the first (ballroom event for Vogue dancing) in Wuhan in my spare time. Because I see cities in China like Shanghai and Chengdu have developed a very good ballroom culture, and I believe Wuhan can do it too."

As the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, Wuhan suffered deep trauma during the first quarter of 2020, locals agree. But Xiong says the experience has yielded important lessons for young people in China and elsewhere.

"I think the world should have more peace and love, and people should not be fighting against each other anymore," he said.

(By Sun Cong and Cate Cadell)

DIEPKLOOF TOWNSHIP, SOUTH AFRICA

When South African fencer Nomvula Mbatha finished top in a national women's sabre competition in 2019, she seemed set for the Olympics via the African Championships in Egypt, scheduled for April 2020.

Then COVID-19 hit. All competition was suspended and a strict lockdown at the end of March seriously curbed training for the 23-year-old and her team.

"The pandemic has been disastrous for us," said Mbatha at her home in the Diepkloof township, southwest of Johannesburg. "We basically didn't get to accomplish anything. This year was cancelled in our lives."

Even when competition resumed, Mbatha, ranked number one with 17 gold medals, faced enormous difficulties raising funding to attend the international events that would secure her a berth at the Tokyo Olympics, postponed to 2021.

A member of the Soweto Fencing Club, she is just one of the country's next generation of star athletes struggling to raise cash to compete in an economy hit by low growth and high unemployment, especially for young people.

Between July and September, unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds rose to 61.3% from 52.3% in the previous three months, according to Statistics South Africa.

As officials look to programmes that can stimulate employment, Mbatha's focus is on the next African Championships. Once again, though, the pandemic looms. A recent spike in infections has prompted new restrictions.

"What if we go back to lockdown?" she said. "I don't have a resolution for 2021 ... I don't have anything because I am scared."

(By Nqobile Dludla, Shafiek Tassiem and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo)

PARIS, FRANCE

Alone in a tiny studio apartment in Paris, unable to leave the country to see her boyfriend, cut off from friends, and uncertain about her future, Solene Tissot felt the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic building up inside her.

"You quickly find yourself overwhelmed by all this. You quickly feel suffocated," said the 19-year-old.

Tissot, who moved to Paris two years ago to study at the Sciences-Po university, is now seeing a psychologist.

She has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder, conditions she says were triggered by the loneliness brought on by COVID-19 lockdowns.

Such restrictions have taken a toll on the mental health of French youth. Between September and November this year, when a fresh lockdown was imposed in France, the proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds with depression went up to 21% from 11%, according to the French public health authority.

Tissot no longer attends lectures in person because her university has cancelled them. Movement restrictions often make it unlawful for her to visit friends at home.

She has not seen her grandparents in a year. Her course requires her to do an internship. But with many firms operating remotely, she is struggling to find somewhere to take her.

Next year, she was due to do a study year in Lebanon - where her boyfriend lives - but it's unclear if travel restrictions will allow it.

Once she graduates, finding work will be harder because of COVID-19. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 22% of French people aged 15 to 24 were neither in work nor education in the third quarter of this year, up from 19% the year before.

Tissot though, is looking to the future. She is learning Arabic, in preparation for the trip to Lebanon she hopes will go ahead.

"What I hope for is also that we can go back to a life that is a bit more normal, and that means being able to see friends without it being illegal to go to their place," she said.

"It's true that 2020 didn't leave much room for good cheer,

and I would like to have that again."

(By Yiming Woo, Maxime Lahuppe and Christian Lowe)

CAIRO, EGYPT

Abdullah El-Berry, a 22-year-old trainee sports journalist, entered 2020 thinking life would be tough. A severe knee injury needed daily physiotherapy and seriously affected his three-hour commute to Cairo from his home in the Delta city of Shebine al-Qanatir.

After the pandemic hit, he could not continue physiotherapy as Egypt's hospitals were overrun with patients. He could not present his graduation project or attend his long-awaited graduation ceremony. The suspension of sports made it near impossible to do his job. And his daily commute was thrown in disarray by night curfews.

Now, he believes 2021 will be even tougher. Paid very little as a trainee at a state-owned newspaper, the young graduate worries he will struggle to find a proper job.

"We already suffer to find a job," he said. "Now, many people lost their jobs due to coronavirus and the economic crisis. It will definitely impact us all."

Egypt's population has been growing fast and just over half of its 102 million people are under 25, according to U.N. data.

Unemployment is high among young people, women and graduates. In the first quarter of 2020, the jobless rate for those aged 15-19 stood at 19.7% and for those aged 20-24 at 13.9%, against an overall rate of 7.7%, according to statistics agency CAPMAS. For women aged 20-24 and graduates it was almost 50%.

Having survived years of tough economic reforms and austerity measures, many Egyptians are unsure how to weather the coronavirus storm. Lockdowns have paralysed tourism and other vital sectors, hitting the economy hard and cutting growth forecasts.

Berry believes social distancing and wearing masks will continue to control lives in 2021, and make young people of his generation less likely to travel and explore new opportunities.

His wishlist for 2021 includes advancing his career and resuming work on a YouTube channel he abandoned due to his studies and coronavirus.

(By Ahmed Fahmy, Mai Shams El-Din and Aidan Lewis)

MOSCOW, RUSSIA

In early 2020, Galina Akselrod-Golikova, 23, was preparing to travel from Moscow to Italy for a marketing and PR job at the Venice biennale's Russian pavilion. She couldn't wait to start.

The dream never happened: the whole event was postponed, the job disappeared and, instead of travelling abroad, she ended up isolated from her friends and family in an apartment in Moscow as a tough lockdown suddenly began in April.

The shock upset her deeply. She fretted so much that she developed stress-induced health issues. In time though, she said she was relieved to have a chance to refocus her life and have time to think.

She said she slowed down for the first time and put her energy into decorating the apartment where she lives with her boyfriend with stylish ornaments, antique furniture and flower arrangements.

"This year was the first time I started to devote so much time to my home, to buying some little things, and to stay there and to think about my space and to express myself through it," she said.

She has not rushed to get a new job, and with time to reflect she has realised that she wants to enrol for a masters degree in food studies in Rome next year.

Russia has resisted a second lockdown in order to soften the economic blow of the pandemic. Unemployment during the health crisis peaked at 6.4% in August, with young people making up 22% of that total.

Despite the upheaval, Akselrod-Golikova believes that the pandemic has brought many positive things into her life, though she acknowledges it was easier for younger people to adjust quickly.

"I've started to appreciate my time as a resource and to devote it to my family, to my friends and to spend more time with them, including getting to know my parents and friends in new ways," she said.

(By Lev Sergeev, Maxim Shemetov, Maria Vasilyeva, Rinat Sagdiev and Tom Balmforth)

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL

Joao Vitor Cavalcante, 19, had trained hard throughout 2019 for his budding career as a professional cyclist. He thought 2020 would be his best year so far.

But the pandemic upended that dream, prompting him to take a job at a car repair shop and give up his plans for a career in cycling.

"Cycling is not easy, it is cruel, although I enjoyed that cruelty," Cavalcante told Reuters. "Now I don't want to live off of that anymore. Instead I want to live to do it."

Cavalcante is one of millions of Brazilian Gen Zs who have had to drastically adjust their aspirations due to the pandemic's effect on the economy.

According to a survey financed by several Brazilian nonprofits, about 23% of Brazilians aged between 15 and 29 looked for new ways to make up lost income during the pandemic. About 60% signed up for emergency government payments, which handed out more than half of Brazil's minimum wage to any citizen without a formal job.

For Cavalcante, there was no other option. His parents were forced to shut down the family clothing store during the first few months of the pandemic and his sponsor left him when cycling competitions were cancelled.

His uncle, aware of the economic constraints, asked him to work at his car repair shop.

"He was my salvation," Cavalcante said. "Either I took that job or I would be working for nothing. Last year, I sort of had a future (in cycling), but that time has passed."

Cavalcante now works eight hours a day repairing cars, although he says he dislikes washing dirty auto parts. But it is a job that helped support his family during a rough time.

He wants to compete again in 2021, but only as an amateur.

"For 2021, I hope that things return to normal and that people can see their friends and family again and that they value their affection," he said.

(By Leonardo Benassatto and Marcelo Rochabrun)

(Editing by Leela de Kretser and Giles Elgood)