The headline is being repeated around the world: Young people are disregarding social distancing guidelines and sparking a rapid rise in coronavirus cases.

The narrative fits within stereotypes that seem to come around with each new generation: Self-centered youth have little regard for the well-being of others and, despite the real risk, believe themselves immune to disease and other mortal threats. But while some Millennials are seeking solace in large-scale gatherings (from a birthday party in Melbourne to a rave in central France and karaoke bars in Japan), many others are using their privilege to aid in the crisis response.

Young people are serving as vaccine testers. They're working essential jobs. Many have gotten involved in volunteer work. If they are in otherwise good health, these teenagers and 20-somethings are less susceptible to severe forms of coronavirus, and this protected status has a tangible benefit to others.

Human challenge trials have been proposed as a way to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine, but to be done ethically, this unconventional approach requires healthy, young participants. The advocacy group 1 Day Sooner has signed up over 32,600 challenge trial volunteers from 140 countries. Co-founder Sophie Rose — age 22 — had been conducting cancer research at the University of Oxford when the pandemic hit.

Many are using their privilege to aid in the crisis response.

"If the last six months have taught us nothing else, the progression of this entire thing has been fairly uncertain," she told the journal Science. "There is a world in which we have a vaccine by then and that would be great, but there's also a world in which we don't. I know I would much rather live in a world where we were ready to implement a human challenge study."

Younger people are also uniquely adaptable to transitioning their efforts to give back online and garner support virtually. Mutual aid networks have popped up in places ranging from Germany to the UK to around the United States. This concept is not new: The term "mutual aid" dates back to 19th- and 20th-century Russian philosopher Peter Kropotki. But now, young community members are organizing through Google spreadsheets, providing financial support to the most vulnerable as well as help with food and medical deliveries and other services.

Young pro-democracy protesters at a Harry Potter-themed demonstration in Bangkok on Aug. 3 — Photo: Andre Malerba/ZUMA

"There are safeguarding concerns, and that is why we are encouraging people to keep it as local as possible," 23-year-old Seren John-Wood, who helped establish a mutual aid project in Lewisham, told the British daily The Guardian. "The solidarity that has emerged from this is incredible. We are hoping this will forge long-lasting connections."

Younger people have also been at the forefront of recent protest movements, demanding a global reckoning on racism and holding elected leaders accountable in their handling of the COVID-19 crisis. In Thailand, youth recently dressed up as Harry Potter characters at demonstrations against King Rama X, who spent quarantine at a hotel in Europe. Marching at universities and town halls, they called for increased freedoms and an overhaul of the Thai constitution.

After Tuesday's catastrophic explosion, it was Beirut's young population who became first responders.

In Lebanon, anti-government protests that began in 2019 were revitalized earlier this summer, largely by young people and students who have been hit hard by the country's economic crisis. As one young protestor told L'Orient-Le Jour, "I demand the fall of this rotten power. We have no jobs, no roads, no water, no electricity. What more do you want?"

And after Tuesday's catastrophic explosion, it was Beirut's young population who became first responders, going from relaxing in bars and restaurants (it was the first day they were allowed to be open after quarantine) to cleaning up the streets, repairing structural damage and helping the wounded.

The deadly blast was a crushing blow to a country already deep in crisis. But it also showed the ability of young activists to put their words into action, proving that when long-held institutions of power fail, those wanting a better world for future generations are prepared to step in.


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