You only have to look at the comment section of any recently published Covid-19 scandal in any news outlet to see which demographic is on the receiving end of the public’s blame for spreading the virus. We have been treated to videos of house parties and mass gatherings in areas with high concentrations of students. A house party of 100 people in Sligo, nearly 1000 freshers in Galway’s Spanish Arch and a 19 year old’s birthday at the Oliver Bond flats were all subject to damning morning-time radio talk, featuring many people balking at the selfishness of the congregations of these teenagers. Although the public are right to condemn their actions, the unbalanced prevalence of these cases in the media perpetuates the idea that Covid-19 is spreading throughout the country as a result of young adults who think they’re insusceptible to the virus. You would be hard-pressed to find students in photographs of anti-mask protests in Dublin, and the people on the bus who wear their masks under their nose or no mask at all tend to be older, yet they receive far less public vilification than students and young adults.
“Though it’s easy to blame one demographic of people in society for the virus, it’s unfair to suggest students are the issue when most of us aren’t receiving a face-to-face education.”
This unnecessary finger-pointing has taken flight particularly in the face of the second lockdown; many are quick to suggest that it’s the selfishness of youths going out to see their friends and party being the sole cause of the country having to shut down again. Though it’s easy to blame one demographic of people in society for the virus, it’s unfair to suggest students are the issue when most of us aren’t receiving a face-to-face education. When there is blame on young people, we must examine their living and working situations in Ireland.
Firstly, the majority of student jobs tend to be frontline, minimum wage jobs. Many have been stocking our supermarket shelves since the first lockdown. When restaurants and cinemas opened again in June, many students returned to part-time jobs as waiters, waitresses and retail workers – jobs with high risks of exposure to the virus. Despite not being paid, student nurses have been and continue to work in direct contact with the virus. This aside, the unemployment rate is at an all time high for young adults, with 36.5% of us out of a job this year. Despite many receiving the coronavirus pandemic unemployment payment (PUP), the low unemployment rate still has knock-on effects. Struggling with a lack of purpose, a lack of access to college and isolation from friends, it is really frustrating that young people are being disparaged as the primary vectors of coronavirus.
“Students who are renting private accommodation are likely to live in either shared rooms or house shares with others, or overpriced private complexes housing hundreds”
Let’s not forget the housing crisis that we are in the midst of. In a since-deleted tweet, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris suggested that young people should reconsider leasing student accommodation for this year. This was tweeted two weeks after most Irish college terms commenced. This is simply not good enough. The tweet inadvertently shamed students who chose to pay extortionate prices for accommodation this year despite the volatility of the Covid-19 situation and the amount of college taking place online. As for the students who are renting private accommodation, they are likely to live in either shared rooms or house shares with others, or overpriced private complexes housing hundreds; there are 4000 student units on Cork St. alone. This alone increases many students’ contacts and opportunities to contract and spread Covid-19. Most private rented accommodations are not offering rent refunds as a result of the pandemic, putting many students in a difficult situation. They are faced with the ultimatum of leaving and losing their money or remaining in cramped accommodation situations with a higher density of people and risk of contracting the virus.
The government’s slow response to NPHET’s recommendations, as well as Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s comment on Claire Byrne Live recently stating that NPHET’s recommendations weren’t “thought through”, have felt disheartening and dismissive. Micheál Martin’s government address announcing the second lockdown attempted to exude messages of hope, whilst also placing the onus on the public to “hold firm”. A reasonable request, but difficult to swallow in tandem with the government’s reactionary handling of the pandemic, and the impending sense of doom for the remainder of 2020.
“Schoolchildren reap the benefits of being able to socialise in school, and adults can spend more time than usual with their families if working from home.”
This isn’t to say that every student has been a role model during the pandemic. People from the ages of 16-25 are developing the most socially in their lives than they ever will, and many in this age group have not sacrificed their social lives in the interest of public health. Though everyone has had to forego things as a result of the pandemic, it’s somewhat easier to follow restrictions when you are living in a family home. Schoolchildren reap the benefits of being able to socialise in school, and adults can spend more time than usual with their families if working from home. In a shared house, students may think their contact with at-risk people is scarce, if at all. This results in a cognitive dissonance that certain students may experience regarding the consequences of their actions, such as spreading the virus and making others sick.
The students who experience this cognitive dissonance are more likely to become complacent when they are vilified in the media. Instead of pinning the blame on one group in society for something to rag on about to Joe Duffy in the morning, it could be reasonable to understand that people of all ages have been flouting guidelines and protesting for freedom since the beginning. In this second lockdown, people of all ages are struggling more to adhere to the rules as the end seems further and further out of reach. The blame game is not going to change anything for the better, but instead may encourage more people to ignore the collective benefits of doing the right thing.