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What does coming of age mean in the middle of a pandemic?

At a time of deep uncertainty, the milestones that mark the life of a young adult have gone missing

Written by Benita Fernando | New Delhi |
May 2, 2021 6:00:58 am
The pandemic and its restrictions on social interactions has increased this sense of alienation among young adults. (Illustaration: Bivash Barua)

Your first kiss. The first time you partied all night and returned home at 5 am. Your first day at college. Your first heartbreak. The first vacation with friends. The first lease agreement. Your first paycheque. Your first taste of adult life.

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If the teen years and the early 20s are when many life experiences debut, something drastically changed last year, with the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much-anticipated milestones never arrived, and a time that ought to have been marked by gay abandon was marred instead by an undeterred stream of stressful situations. Young adults have lost jobs; traded independence for a life of anxiety at home; seen loved ones die as they scrambled for hospital beds; become caregivers to their families sooner than they would have expected.

When the pandemic hit last year, the messaging was to secure senior citizens. Science and statistics showed that a younger population, especially those below 40 years of age, was reportedly safer, with most deaths in India seen in people 45 years and above. Now, with exploding cases amid poor administration, the year 2020 pales in comparison to 2021. In the second wave, doctors are seeing younger people catch the disease more than they did last year. Those still “safe” are caught in a cycle of never-ending anxiety. In the midst of relentless emergencies, what does it mean to be young and adulting in a pandemic?

PT Dinesh’s father, the sole breadwinner of the family, runs a general store, commencing business daily at 7 am. In the last year, Dinesh has been perpetually worried about him. “I imagine scenarios and I wouldn’t know what to do if some of them came true. The best I can do is to believe it won’t happen to me, stay at home and focus on what’s at hand,” says Dinesh, 19, a Navi Mumbai resident.

The anxiety of not knowing what tomorrow might bring is not his only fear. The second-year engineering student found his expectations from college life change drastically last year when classes shifted online during the lockdown, even before he had had the chance to forge friendships with his new classmates. He says, “I feel bad that out of four years of college, we have already lost two. I know my classmates by their names and nothing more.”

The pandemic and its restrictions on social interactions has only heightened this sense of loneliness and alienation among young adults. Raipur-based counselling psychologist Shivli Shrivastava, 25, has seen more people in their 20s reach out to her since last year. While the pandemic is inarguably a factor, she says it’s also because her younger clientele are more informed about mental-health concerns. Shrivastava caters to youngsters in Mumbai, Bengaluru, and in Tier II and III cities. The common concerns she has come across in the last year has been a greater sense of being “stuck”. “At their age, they want to grow up and go to college, start working. Now, they can’t. On top of that, most things are virtual now. As we all know, college is more than just about studying,” she says.

According to the Sample Registration System 2018, Census of India, nearly 50 per cent of the population in the country falls under the age of 25. The impact of the pandemic on this vast population of young adults is complex, with ripples across their physical health, mental well-being and socio-economic status, and even more so in certain marginalised and disadvantaged communities. A new report by the global philanthropic organisation EMpower — The Emerging Markets Foundation, published earlier this month, notes that COVID-19 has exacerbated existing gender inequalities for adolescent girls and young women across seven cities in India.

Out of 153 participants, 42 per cent said the pressure to get married increased during the pandemic. About 90 per cent reported experiencing distress and despair, including depression, lack of confidence, loneliness and helplessness. Coping mechanisms, such as connecting with friends and trusted adults, which could have been possible with regular school and college routines, were hard to access as well.

There is another problem faced by young Indians. Living on their own while in the same city, or cohabiting with romantic partners is met with great resistance from family elders. Very often, young adults move cities in order to experience independence. The pandemic and its strain on finances now means that they are clinging to jobs they don’t like, living with partners they no longer get along with or moving back with toxic families.

Coming of age in a pandemic meant a baptism by fever for Guwahati-resident Aman Gwjwn, 18. Gwjwn, who was studying at a boarding school, was forced to confront COVID-19 in July last year. On the day her ISC exam results were declared, Gwjwn lost her sense of smell. Her COVID-19 test came back as “inconclusive”, even though she showed most symptoms of the disease. Eventually, her grandmother also contracted the disease, developed pneumonia and had to be put on a ventilator.

The quick turn of events took Gwjwn by surprise, considering she had always masked up and only ever stepped out to pick up groceries. “When my grandmother got COVID, I blamed myself because I felt that I had spread it to others at home,” she says. Loneliness and anxiety manifested as poor eating habits, crying, lack of exercise and sleeplessness. The added pressure of preparing for exams that could probably be cancelled only made things worse. Unlike pre-pandemic times, the option of meeting a friend and having a shoulder to cry on wasn’t available either. “I’ve been surrounded by friends for most of my life. Suddenly, I had no one,” she says.

In the history of pandemics, long-term mental-health repercussions and trauma are relatively less studied. With what little material is available, researchers have found that survivors of a catastrophic event like the Spanish Flu (1918-20) reported depression, mental distraction, sleep disturbances and difficulties in coping at work. In this current pandemic, psychiatrists are already warning of its effects on mental health for years to come, with the surviving population having to negotiate lockdown-induced isolation, survivor’s guilt and grief.

The constantly changing restrictions from governments and the very nature of the pandemic, Shrivastava believes, have also created trust issues for people, who are faced with new challenges as soon as they believe they have overcome a previous set.

For Veydaant Khanna, 25, the pandemic is a grim reminder of his existing health condition. Unlike others his age who are largely insulated from thoughts of mortality, Khanna, who lives with Type 1 diabetes, has always been aware of his frailty. The pandemic made it glaringly apparent. His condition has necessitated insulin injections multiple times a day and an ICU hospitalisation during the pandemic. “I haven’t been that stressed about my family. It’s me that I worry about,” says the Mumbai-based filmmaker. All through the pandemic, Khanna stayed home while his mother ran errands. “This idea of invincible youth has done us more damage than the pandemic. We have internalised this from a young age and it’s the same rhetoric as mard ko dard nahi hota (boys don’t cry). It means we are low on the priority list even for life-saving drugs,” he says.

In 2020, Khanna was set to shoot his first film. It was everything that he looked forward to — a huge set, a crew of 100, an interesting project. The opportunity passed him by as did other job offers. “We have had mass-scale tragedies before, but this phenomenon of social media broadcasting deaths of people in real time is entirely new. A whole generation of young people have been traumatised, and I don’t mean that in a non-medical sense — they are going to need therapeutic help for a good chunk of time to come. We are already a generation facing extreme economic uncertainty. It’s now compounded by anxiety and nervousness.”

Goa-based mental-health NGO Sangath recently launched a podcast, Stories from a Pandemic, which features young people’s first-hand experiences of living through COVID-19. The first episode had accounts of students, professionals and frontline workers in the 18-34 age group, along with those of mental-health experts, on themes that ranged from religious discrimination in a pandemic to managing a chronic mental-health condition amid uncertainty. Responding to these accounts, psychiatrist Dr Vikram Patel, professor of global health at Harvard Medical School, the US, and co-founder of Sangath, observes, “We had a crisis well before COVID-19 but it was under the radar… what COVID-19 has done is that it has brought that crisis into full view… It existed for decades. We’ve simply ignored it.”

The young adults of a near-apocalypse are being asked to finish growing up quickly, but, perhaps, things weren’t that different before. Their traumas and troubles were just better hidden. Shrivastava believes that we often wrongly view adolescence and the early 20s as a period of superficiality. Even so, a pandemic could turn out to be a chance to create empathy.

A case in point is how it has been young people who have come together to compile pandemic resources and amplify calls for help during the second wave.

Young adults like Dinesh and Gwjwn are actively addressing climate emergency, preparing for future apocalypses that might befall their generation or those yet to come. “We have been trained to think about exams and syllabi. Climate change has made me think long-term,” Dinesh says.

He volunteers for Fridays for Future India, part of the global climate strike movement by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, designing and writing social-media content for it. His involvement would have been significantly less if it were not for the pandemic.
Much as the times are hard, Shrivastava believes this, too, shall pass. “There will be a first kiss or a first day of college. They will happen but just not in the way we were told they would,” she says.

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