Coronavirus pandemic hurting Asia's youth but they are staying resilient

Thai blogger Thanaporn Limrungsukho says her children have grown closer because of the pandemic as they were mostly stuck at home together. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THANAPORN LIMRUNGSUKHO

JAKARTA - Nearly two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, there are more out-of-school, malnourished and depressed young people across Asia as families struggle to cope with job losses and tight finances.

But the pandemic has also taught a generation of youth the importance of being resilient and adaptable. And many have picked up new skills or rediscovered the joy of spending time with their families and loved ones.

Thai blogger Thanaporn Limrungsukho, 41, said her two children, aged five and eight, have grown closer following the lockdown. "They still fight, but they've also learnt how to compromise or negotiate with each other, which I think are essential skills."

Ten-year-old Ursula Merveille Virinescia, an Indonesian, said she has learnt new skills such as drawing, painting and creating animations on her smartphone apps.

For most young people in the region, however, the pandemic has resulted in missed opportunities.

In Indonesia, where a quarter of the 270 million population are aged 10 to 24, parents have resorted to pulling their children out of school or marrying off their young daughters to ease their financial burden.

The legal age for marriage for both men and women is 19 in the Muslim-majority country, but official data show requests for special dispensations tripling from 23,126 in 2019 to 64,211 last year.

In Thailand, at least 10,000 students are estimated to have dropped out of school since the pandemic began, and the number is expected to rise to 65,000 by the end of this year, said Equitable Education Fund's director of civil society Sompong Jitradub.

In Malaysia, 21,316 students left school from last March to July this year, according to the Education Ministry.

Likewise, in India, 4.6 per cent of children are not enrolled in school this year, nearly doubling from 2018, according to a report by non-profit group Pratham. Some 150 million children are out of the school system, according to official figures.

The physical and mental health of the young have also taken a beating.

India has recorded a whopping 91 per cent jump in the number of "severely acute malnourished" children, with 1.77 million such cases as at Oct 14 this year, compared with November last year.

Two-year-old Pawan is one such malnourished child. He has developed oedema, which causes fluid to accumulate in his body tissues. The toddler weighs only a little over 9kg, about half the recommended weight for children of his age as prescribed by the World Health Organisation.

His father, Mr Aadesh Adivasi, a daily wage labourer from the Sahariya tribal community, said he works only 12 days in a month, down from the usual 20 before the pandemic. He earns a total of 200 rupees (S$3.60) a day.

"We survive by foraging in the forest and selling firewood and herbs," he told The Straits Times from the government-run Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh, where Pawan is being treated.

This life-and-death struggle is perhaps less acute in urban areas, but being cooped up at home for too long also takes a toll.

Cases of depression among children and adolescents have risen threefold, said Dr Jitendra Nagpal, a senior Indian psychiatrist at New Delhi's Moolchand Hospital.

"Children complain of body aches and lack of sleep," he said.

Indeed, lockdowns and heightened measures imposed in schools have forced young people to study from home for prolonged periods and interact less with their peers.

Malaysian mother Margaret Lim, 54, said her two children have hardly gone out, missing out on sporting events and annual concerts organised by the school.

"I think the younger of my kids was rather depressed by it. The other child was stoic but she was so scared of catching the virus that she would not step out of the house even when we were not in the lockdown phase," she told ST.

Mood swings, insomnia, concentration problems and a slew of behavioural problems seem to affect a broad age group, from five-year-olds to young adults.

A survey by the Women's Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry in Indonesia showed that 13 per cent of respondents aged below 18 suffered from mild to severe depression last year.

In the Philippines, the pandemic has exacerbated already alarming mental health issues among children aged five to 15, a study from the country's top medical schools found.

"The fear and anxiety of contracting the virus, suspension of physical classes, disruption of regular daily routine and a decrease in social support from school peers collectively add burden to the mental well-being of children," they said.

School leavers have another reason for more stress - a sluggish job market.

Indonesian medical student Kenly Chandra, 23, who will not be able to finish his studies on time next year and has had to forgo a student exchange programme overseas, said the pandemic has exacerbated his quarter of life crisis.

"During the pandemic, we have done a lot of activities at home and virtually... For us in our 20s, we have lost the moment to personally grow as all our movements are restricted," he said.

Filipino student Zoe Tagerino, 17, who was supposed to graduate from junior high school this year, said: "The pandemic stole that part of my life."

Even with borders reopening, it is still hard to find work.

Mr James Ho, founder of Johor Baru-based charity group Yayasan Suria, which helps Malaysian students whose families have been hard hit by the pandemic, said: "It is very difficult to find a job, even though the economy is opening."

Youth unemployment in Thailand, which includes those aged 15 to 24, has hit an all-time high, said the International Labour Organisation. Youth employment fell by 7 per cent in the first quarter of this year from the fourth quarter of 2019, the organisation said in its Thailand Labour Market Update released last month.

While the pandemic has dealt the young a bad hand, there are still bright spots around.

Indonesian Guido Anderlecht Aurelius Maximus, 18, has developed his skills in billiards, learning from a coach, and has won some local competitions.

The pandemic has also honed the cooking skills of some children, such as Malaysian Almas Sumaiyah Mardhiah, 12. "What I gain from this pandemic is learning about myself and improving my cooking skills by trying out new recipes."

But most just wish the pandemic would go away for good.

"I hope for the pandemic to be over. It's as simple as that," said Zoe, the Manila-based student.

  • With additional reporting by Tan Tam Mei in Bangkok, Hazlin Hassan in Kuala Lumpur, Raul Dancel in Manila, Nirmala Ganapathy in New Delhi and Debarshi Dasgupta in Shivpuri.

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