The COVID generation: How the pandemic has shaped the lives of teens around the world
'Even if your worries become your past, they are still a part of you,' says 16-year-old Arianna Hellman
*Originally published on March 23, 2022.
The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth may not be known for years but teens' lives are being affected around the globe.
We asked teenagers from three countries how their lives changed over the past two years. Here are their stories:
Arianna Hellman, 16, New York City, U.S.
When the pandemic hit New York in 2020, Arianna Hellman was terrified — not of catching the virus but of her family discovering her secret. Arianna had carefully masked an eating disorder which had brought her weight down to 82 pounds.
"I would look at TikTok videos where the girls were just so skinny. I could see my ribs and I loved it," she said.
The pandemic brought her siblings home from university. Her dad worked from home remotely. Her mother, a physician-scientist, was busy overseeing cancer patients at Sloan-Kettering Hospital. Arianna, sick with worry, knew her secret couldn't last.
"I felt so lonely. I badly wanted to tell someone. I wanted to unload it all," she said.
One night, her mother discovered her vomiting into a toilet bowl. After tearful conversations that went on all night, Arianna got medical help, including visits with an adolescent medicine doctor.
"She would test my urine. There's a certain chemical that reveals whether you've been vomiting or not. She would take blood. She'd weigh me."
Last summer, a worried Arianna kept her eye on two sets of numbers: New York's COVID-19 cases and the numbers on her weight scale.
"When I was forced into recovery, I started gaining. I could even feel my fingers getting fatter. I cried a lot."
And there was the added stress of being subject to racism as a Chinese American. Sometimes, when shopping with her mother, they were accused of being carriers of the virus. She said her mother would yell back at the racists, "Stop being a child."
Arianna did have one refuge: her artwork. She created collages that expressed her anxiety, fear, loneliness and solitude.
"The one of butterflies flying out of my mouth … it's about letting go of all of my anxieties but one butterfly remains perched on my shoulder," she said.
"Even if your worries become your past, they are still a part of you."
Max Fulham, 17, Dublin, Ireland
Max Fulham describes himself as both Irish and a "citizen of the world." Max has a disability; due to a serious visual impairment from birth, he has no peripheral vision and little sight on his right side. Max says this has shaped his ideas about how the world should work.
"If we sit back and say, 'I don't care if the world is an unequal place,' you're saying to the people who struggle every day, 'You don't matter. I matter more than you,'" he said.
"I don't want to live in that kind of society."
When COVID-19 struck, his family moved from Dublin to its rural bed and breakfast in County Wicklow. At first, Max says he felt indifferent about the pandemic. He spent hours playing video games on his phone. But then he noticed the virus was walloping the elderly.
"I saw the number of people dying in the ICU, and I thought, this is going to be bad for Ireland, bad for the world."
He noticed societal divisions developing. He said some people, protesting restrictions, were socially aggressive. He also noticed daily acts of kindness, such as his friend Calem, who cycled to pensioners' homes, dropping off groceries.
Before COVID-19, Max had dabbled in climate activism but the pandemic gave him more time to think. He started making connections.
"My house has been flooded regularly," he said.
"People aren't making the link between the floods that run through my living room and the climate crisis."
Today, he runs social media for the Irish chapter of the "Fridays for Future" website, the global movement sparked by teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg. He's helped co-ordinate climate concerts and protests in up to 40 countries.
He says, when it comes to the environment, "I do believe our generation will bend the arc of justice."
Mary Atieno, 15, Kibera, Kenya
While the coronavirus has been a strain on public health systems around the world, it has also affected the economic health of many countries, including Kenya.
Mary Atieno lives in Kibera, also known as one of Africa's largest slums, just outside the capital of Nairobi. According to the United Nations, Kibera, at six square kilometres, is home to approximately two million people. In Kibera, forget social distancing, masks and hand sanitizer.
"It's hard to keep ourselves safe," said Mary. "We live in congested housing and the slums are filled with garbage. There's dirt everywhere you go."
Mary's father lost his job as a hotel cook and the family of seven was penniless for eight months. Non-governmental organizations and charities worked to fill the food void. But there was something Mary was more afraid of than the virus — the risk of rape while visiting the communal toilet.
Her family has to share a toilet with up to 30 other people every day. Young girls wake up very early to try to get to the front of the line and sometimes a male predator might lie in wait.
"It's really scary for me," she said.
"We try to go out in groups, there's more protection. If something happens, we might die, get pregnant or have to stop school forever."
As children in countries like Canada transitioned to online learning, millions of students in other countries without access to things like laptops and internet just stayed at home.
A non-governmental organization based in the U.K. called Anno's Africa provided safe spaces for children on afternoons and weekends. Arts and dance programs were on offer. Mary signed up for ballet classes, even though she thought the dance "looked weird." But soon, she was hooked.
"Actually, I'm kind of good," she said.
"Ballet has helped me to express my emotions, my anger, my sadness. It's helped me improve my confidence. My first performance, well, it was actually wonderful and everyone applauded and I felt like one of the best dancers who has ever performed in the world."