At a press conference on March 29, BC Premier John Horgan attributed growing COVID-19 case numbers to young people and asked them to “not blow this for the rest of us.”
“The cohort from 20 to 39 year olds are not paying as much attention to these broadcasts, and quite frankly are putting the rest of us in a challenging situation,” Horgan said.
This comment garnered backlash from those in the 20 to 39 cohort who felt that the reason for a recent rise in cases was more complex than just young people failing to comply with public health orders.
Horgan did not provide data to support his claim, though he tweeted a link on March 30 to a National Post article about an increase in ICU admissions for young people in Ontario due to COVID-19 variants. But throughout the pandemic, the 20 to 39 cohort has accounted for 41 per cent of cases, rising to just 44 per cent in the past two weeks.
Azim Shariff, an associate professor in the department of psychology at UBC, said that one repercussion of targeting a group of people without citing factual evidence is the “downward trend in trust of the governmental institutions.”
“If you make them feel shame in a way that they don’t feel is justifiable, then it might erode the trust they have in the institutions,” Shariff said, a consequence that could make promoting compliance with public health orders more difficult.
Unvaccinated and working frontline jobs
Many people in the 20 to 39 age cohort work frontline service jobs, live with roommates or rely on public transit — activities that put them at higher risk for exposure to COVID-19. BC’s plan to vaccinate younger front-line workers with the AstraZeneca vaccine was halted amid concerns for blood clots in younger people, resulting in most younger people having to wait until June to receive their first dose of a vaccine.
According to Shariff, many of the young people who are at risk “are not at risk frivolously — they’re under more economic pressure … because they have less of an economic cushion.”
A slow vaccine rollout coupled with lengthy restrictions has caused fourth-year microbiology and immunology student Maitri Panchal to feel the effects of pandemic fatigue.
“When the restrictions stopped being delayed every few weeks and they just sat there indefinitely, that definitely hit a chord in a lot of people … in a way there was no hope for an end,” Panchal said.
Throughout the pandemic, Panchal has been at higher risk for COVID-19 exposure due to her volunteer work at Vancouver General Hospital, but said that this work “stops you from even thinking about breaking restrictions in any way.”
“When you’re faced with the emotional challenges that families are facing every single day, it’s definitely a deterrent … also seeing the damage it can do to young people. If you’re not faced with that every day, it’s hard to keep going.”
Panchal said that she empathizes with younger people who have months to go before they are vaccinated.
“You feel very conflicted because you know on the one hand that people are trying their best, but in a way they’re throwing away some of the most meaningful life experiences … the first few years of university are really life-changing and … giving that up is hard for people.”
Feelings of frustration among young people
Shariff said that “young people tend to be higher risk takers” and prior to the P.1 variant were less likely to get severely sick from COVID-19.
Joshua Peng, a second-year arts student at UBC, said that his main reason for following public health orders was because of his living situation.
“I’m living at home with my two parents right now. I don’t want to chance it too much,” Peng said.
For students living on campus, the temptation to see friends living in residence might be too hard to pass up. A frat house hosted a gathering of more than a dozen individuals recently and there have also been multiple reported exposures of COVID-19 in first-year residence, as well as a recent outbreak at the UBC Hospital.
Though Panchal understands why many young people might feel compelled to break rules, she said that she also understands the anger many feel when they see COVID-19 rule breakers.
“I’ve personally lost some family to COVID-19. After that … it becomes significantly harder to justify that kind of behaviour. It’s hard not to feel mad.”
Positive messaging may be more effective at reducing cases
In a series of tweets published on March 30, Horgan responded to criticism he received for his comment.
“I’m trying to catch the attention of the few who refuse to follow the public health restrictions. To the vast majority of young people doing everything they can: thank you,” Horgan wrote in a tweet.
As information about COVID-19 variants continues to evolve, Shariff said that we should have compassion for young people, the premier and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry as “it’s a really dramatically changing landscape.”
However, rather than focus on divisions between people based on age, Shariff said that more effective messaging would highlight positive behaviour and accomplishments that people have achieved.
“Individualism, autonomy, things that we often trumpet in the West as really important values — they’ve got their place. A pandemic, which is a collective action problem, is not the best place for them,” Shariff said.
“We deserve a pat on the back. A lot of people have done a really good job in a really hard circumstance and we have really come together as a province.”
Panchal echoed those feelings and said that “targeting any one group only really inspires anger, which isn’t necessarily the emotion you want for collective action.”
“A greater focus on the positives would be a huge step in the right direction. Even [data] maps of what could have happened versus what did because of the steps that we’ve taken would be really inspiring for people.”