The nexus between Young people and COVID-19 in Mauritania
The role of young people in the spread and control of COVID-19 couldn’t be overestimated. Thus, young people are less vulnerable to the virus, their coping strategies have varied, with both negative and positive strategies. In terms of negative coping, several young people in Mauritania where the pandemic has exacerbated a serious economic crisis, are experiencing melancholy and despondency. Others resorting to social media and turning to religion to escape the pressure of the pandemic, noting that young people in Mauritania socialize more through gatherings in small groups to drink tea “ataya” and chat.
However, findings from a COVID-19 Perception and Behavioral Survey conducted by UNICEF and the National Statistics Office in Mauritania, underscores that some young people had adopted positive coping strategies, and learning from these cases can reveal potential entry points to enhance young people’s resilience in crisis contexts. According to the survey, some young people highlighted that they were actively sharing public health messaging about COVID-19 among their social networks, either in person or through social media. Young people also highlighted in the survey that they get most of their COVID-19 information from social media and they do trust the information they receive from social media more than any other channel.
In some communities in Mauritania, young people were volunteering to distribute hand sanitizers and food packages in their neighborhoods. Some adolescent boys were also spending long hours on online games, others playing more football in their neighborhood to release stress and had even reduced their smoking habits in part; because financial pressures meant they could no longer afford cigarettes and also the cultural aspect of not smoking in the midst of elders. Some adolescent girls are taking up new hobbies such as photography and dancing in order to improve their mood and well-being.
Significant multidimensional age-specific psycho-emotional effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and containment measures on adolescents in Mauritania are highlighted in the above-mentioned surveys. The survey findings show that the pandemic and the public health response to it are exacerbating pre-existing age vulnerabilities for adolescents, especially in terms of stress, and limited access to youth-friendly health services, education services during school closures, and peer networks.
The survey data also underscored intersecting specific vulnerabilities including reduced access to finances as family incomes contract, intensified time poverty for adolescent during school closures and lockdowns due to the unequal intra-household gender division of labor especially for married girls, as well as heightened exposure to sexual and gender-based violence risks. Moving forward the following could be hinged on for a successful post-COVID-19 for young people.
Leveraging the education response when schools begin to reopen offers an important entry-point to integrate age-responsive psychosocial support into existing curricula. The education sector has also adapted and responded to COVID-19 through new models of delivery, including virtual schooling and radio schools in resource-constrained settings in Mauritania, which would also allow for the integration of psychosocial modules and referrals to promote adolescents’ access to support services. Combined with in-person mentoring (with social distancing), this could give young people the personal interaction they need with a competent non-family adult something which our data evidence suggests can play an important role in fostering adolescent post-COVID-19 well-being.
The expansion of COVID-19 related social protection in Mauritania would provide a unique opportunity to identify and support the most vulnerable groups, including adolescents with disabilities or married adolescents. There is significant potential for social protection systems to promote adolescent well-being, gender equality, and transformative change as a core precondition for long-term and sustainable poverty reduction in Mauritania.
Community-based delivery models adapted to the local population and cultural needs could also be more fully harnessed in the provision of Communication for development (C4D) health services for adolescents. As findings have highlighted, cultural and religious attributes of belief influence how people seek help and drive behavioral change and access to services, as well as outcomes for health, which is related to COVID-19 in Mauritania. Community-based models need to engage holistically with the adolescent experience. Human-centered design approaches and youth or peer-led interventions show early promise. However, many integrated community-based approaches have fallen short of the minimum standards required for adequate provision of health support, including referral services, and especially regarding interventions to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence during COVID-19 in Mauritania. As such, it will be important to focus on addressing barriers that impede adolescent girls’ access to health and other services by considering mobility constraints, opening hours, access to female staff and service providers, alongside safety concerns, childcare responsibilities, and social distancing restrictions as religion deems in Mauritania. To unlock the potential of these approaches, constraints in the enabling environment will also need to be addressed, including engagement of religious leaders, addressing fake news and misinformation.
The expansion of inclusive virtual platforms provides an opportunity to expand psychosocial first aid delivery for adolescents, particularly in urban settings with good internet connectivity, but also in hard-to-reach communities where health infrastructure may not be readily available. Evidence suggests that digital tools offer several advantages not least that services can be provided at scale, at low cost, and largely in private, reducing stigma associated with seeking help. However, further efforts are needed to determine how digital programs that deliver prevention and promote positive health reach adolescents from all parts of society, including the more vulnerable, and how digital infrastructure can be expanded without exacerbating digital inequalities.
Inclusive, adolescent-centered approaches need to be considered in COVID-19 recovery efforts to ‘Build Forward Better’ and that interventions will need to be adapted to the varying intensity and duration of the pandemic and containment measures in place in different contexts. By focusing on high-impact strategies, efficiencies can be gained which will be important in the coming period of shrinking fiscal space anticipated in Mauritania. Recognizing that the evidence here has captured the short-term impacts on adolescent realities, and that follow-up social research will be needed to ascertain the patterning and extent of more enduring, longer-term psycho-emotional consequences.
Note: This blog was written in December 2020 and reflects the then situation. The blog also reflects the personal opinion of the writer and not his employer.