Our celebrations on launching new programmes all around the world, and delight in working with our new global advocacy partner UNICEF, had hardly died down when COVID-19 erupted into our lives.
A virus that is primarily transmitted by close personal contact represents an existential threat to a programme that has always been based on face-to-face interactions, and the introduction of school closures and social distancing have struck at the heart of our school-based work. Perhaps even more importantly, these measures to control the spread of the virus have often increased the very risk behaviours that our programmes set out to address.
Movement restrictions have reduced opportunities for physical activity, loss of income has hit family budgets for healthy foods, seemingly endless spare time can increase opportunities for smoking and alcohol, and restrictions on public transport have made some cities more polluted than ever. Mary from Kenya lives in Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa and sums up her own challenges during the pandemic, ‘“In Kibera, like any other informal settlement, it is nearly impossible to social distance and finding fresh food at an affordable price has been quite a task as prices have sky-rocketed.”
During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, our Young Health Programme (YHP) was needed more than ever. As young people craved information about how to protect their health and longed for social interaction with their peers, we knew we needed to act. We reached out to our non-profit partners and encouraged them to be creative in adapting their programmes to reach young people virtually whenever possible, and reassured them of our continuing support, releasing them from any requirements for reporting or project delivery. YHPs across the world responded and adapted their programmes so that they could continue to reach young people and respond to local needs whilst being respectful of social distancing. We added COVID-19 prevention and transmission education in many places to build knowledge and understanding about the virus. Despite these challenges YHPs around the world had reached more than half a million young people with health information in the first six months of 2020.
Our non-profit partners and young people showed resilience and flexibility in the face of the pandemic by finding innovative ways to continue their work to improve youth health. The big switch for many programmes was of course to use new digital media tools, and some such as YHP Canada had been doing so already – having put their ‘At Your Best’ resources online some years ago. Even so, they had to develop new ‘At-Home Play Days’ instead of school-based ones – and were delighted to reach over 10,000 children and youth across the country through them.
Others started their digital journeys from scratch with YHP Mexico posting weekly WhatsApp messages, and using social media, game-based webinars and telephone calls to maintain their contact with youth in poor, rural neighbourhoods. In Germany, the cookery sessions that were part of the work with street children may have had to stop, and the soccer team was unable to continue with their training and matches, but they switched to virtual sessions instead.
YHP Serbia creating a created a song and music video called ‘Oxygen’ with the help of popular young influencers and AZ employees and their children. The song caught on and is already on its way to reaching two million views.
As we near the end of 2020, our YHPs have engaged with over 1.1 million young people since the start of the year– all while taking proper COVID-19 protective measures in each country they worked in. This sort of help is needed – as Ishita, one of the YHP’s peer-educators, put it, “I am missing Young Health Programme staff and my friends who I used to meet daily. My family has exhausted all our resources and we are now struggling with basic necessities.”
Ridho from Indonesia puts a brave face on it, “We have to stay thinking positively and keep optimistic… I wish that, after the end of coronavirus, the community will keep the solidarity, collaboration, helping each other and togetherness, because this is very much needed.”
This solidarity has been reflected in AstraZeneca employees volunteering in programmes all over the world. In Australia colleagues took part in virtual cooking sessions with schools, and in Russia volunteers provided mentoring support to children from orphanages or living with foster families – through the Internet without having to leave their homes.
We have also been fortunate in our partnership with UNICEF, which has been listed as one of Facebook’s most trusted sources of information on COVID-19. UNICEF has used this position of trust to share tips on maintaining physical activity during the pandemic and running live online sessions on adolescent mental health, physical activity and well-being.
This is just one part of their work with the YHP on youth leadership which is being pioneered in six ‘accelerator countries’ - Angola, Belize, Brazil, Indonesia, Jamaica and South Africa. This may be the largest of the new YHP initiatives in 2020 but it is far from the only one. New YHP programmes have been set up in Bulgaria to tackle youth smoking, in France to help disadvantaged youth in school and into employment, and in Slovenia to address the growing challenge of obesity. This is not to mention the other programmes that are still in the planning phase, but that is a story for 2021.
Next year will undoubtedly be different but for the YHP it may not be entirely business as usual. France Dube, who leads YHP Canada, has an ambition for her programme to reach one million children by 2023. Others are integrating digital experimentation into their longer-term thinking. YHP China is launching digital volunteering into its work on air pollution, while YHP Turkey has been working with the Ministry of National Education to deliver their programme through Zoom and YHP Sweden is undergoing a ‘digital transformation’ to bring materials online. Whatever happens it seems that YHP will emerge from COVID and lockdowns stronger than ever, with some hugely useful new techniques being applied to continue our work to transform youth health.