Worldwide, over 140 million people have contracted COVID-19. Three million of those people have died. The stress test of this global pandemic has revealed cracks in our public health response in times of crisis. The lives lost and irrevocably altered due to the pandemic will serve as a constant reminder of the failure to adequately address and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The impacts of COVID-19 also extend far beyond those contracting and spreading the virus. With mandatory lock-downs across the world, young people in particular have experienced heightened barriers in accessing sexual and reproductive health care. Just last week, Rutgers, a sexual and reproductive health and rights organization in the Netherlands, published a new report, I feel that things are out of my hands – How COVID-19 prevention measures have affected young people’s sexual and reproductive health in Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Nepal, Uganda and Zimbabwe, outlining the truly detrimental impacts of COVID-19 on young people’s lives.
Through a survey of young people from the six countries in the publication’s title, researchers found that COVID-19 exacerbated existing inequalities in accessing quality reproductive health services and sexual health education. As lower- and middle-income countries began strict lock-down measures for fear of overwhelming health care systems with new COVID cases, many young people lost access to education. Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents reported that their school had been closed at some point due to COVID-19.
The study showed that in lower- and middle-income countries, school closures have had particularly devastating impacts. Students reported barriers in attending classes held online or over the radio, where many people do not have reliable internet access or radio reception. They also reported that they largely stopped receiving sexual health education, leaving young people to navigate their sexual and reproductive health alone. Respondents shared their fears that this has likely lead to an increase rates in unintended pregnancies among their peers.
In response, many young people have turned to social media platforms to get the sexual and reproductive health information they need. Sajja Singh and Riju Dhakal of YUWA, a youth-led advocacy organization in Nepal focused on empowering young individuals to advocate for change in their community, highlighted their efforts to expand access to reproductive health information in the midst of COVID-19 during our sister organization’s recent panel event. YUWA has led innovative efforts to utilize social media and online platforms to spread information throughout Nepal, hosting webinars and trainings, partnering with prominent YouTubers, producing viral social media videos, and publishing digital comic strips designed to reach young people.
Just as many young people have been left without means to learn about safe sex, they have also been left without the resources they need to practice safe sex. Due to a number of barriers, including fear of contracting the virus at health facilities, lack of transportation, self-isolation, mandatory curfews, stock outs, clinic closures, long lines, and economic hardships, 30 percent of young people surveyed in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe reported they were not able to access family planning services they needed as a result of COVID-19. Over one-third of people in Ghana, Kenya, Zepal, Zimbabwe, and Uganda surveyed reported that COVID-19 had prevented them from accessing abortion or post-abortion services they needed, citing similar barriers.
The most marginalized people—including rural residents, people with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, and LGBTQ+ people—are facing additional challenges in accessing care. Of the 21 HIV-positive individuals who reported needing access to treatment, 12 (57%) were unable to get all of their medication during the pandemic, due to stock outs, lack of transportation, fear of contracting COVID, and clinic closures. Qualitative data showed that transgender people who are undergoing gender affirmation health care have been unable to access the hormones required as a result of the pandemic. As schools closed around the world, those living in rural areas and people with disabilities faced increased difficulties in accessing online or radio schooling, causing many to permanently drop out of school.
This report makes it clear that the impacts of the pandemic will last far beyond worldwide rollout of vaccinations, as young people around the world are experiencing increased economic hardship, difficulties in accessing education, and barriers in accessing comprehensive reproductive health services including family planning, abortion, HIV/AIDS treatment, and hormone therapy. As countries continue to ramp up their COVID-19 response, they must prioritize increasing access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education and reproductive health services for young people everywhere.