By Dr Jonathan Awori
I remember my first COVID-19 patient. She was 16 and I was called to see her after she had been admitted to hospital. Alone in her hospital room, she looked scared. Though I tried to hide it, I was too. I was, after all, knowingly entering the same room as a COVID-positive person. At that time, we knew little about this highly contagious virus, and a vaccine was months away—at best.
What we did know, however, was encouraging for young people. Early data indicated that while young people were as susceptible to the disease as anyone else, they were much less likely to be hospitalized or die from it. Yet there were other costs. Hidden costs.
Decked out in my personal protective equipment, I remember how hard it was to hear my patient over the hum of the fan in my headgear. I introduced myself and we had a brief chat. Over the next two days, I noticed that she looked forward to our brief check-ins. It was then I realized that she probably felt lonely. Away from her family, she had no-one to talk to, no one to hug, no one to laugh with, or do any of the things that feel human. In the hospital, everyone avoided her room unless necessary. Even when they came in, they tried to keep their distance. Understandably.
One day, after our brief check in, I reached out for her hand and squeezed it briefly. It was a fleeting moment. And a gloved hand. But I hoped it would mean something to her. I hope it did something to meet the need for human connection.
We, particularly we in the medical community, often think about COVID-19 in terms of case load and lives lost. From this lens, we can misunderstand the peculiar suffering young people have endured under this pandemic. COVID-19 has cost young people their education, their mental health, their wellbeing, and their hopes. It has dimmed their prospects for economic prosperity.
Today, widespread vaccination is the best tool we have for saving lives in Africa. The research is clear – vaccines are highly effective, particularly at preventing hospitalization and death. And while many of us see the importance of vaccination for our parents—for the elderly—we also have to appreciate that vaccination is the only way to safeguard our children’s futures. Vaccination is the only way they can resume life, learning, and social interactions. It’s the only way economies can fully and permanently reopen and begin recovering to restore and create opportunities for young people.
Africa is a predominantly young population, with almost 60 percent of our population under the age of 25. The longer this pandemic drags, the more profound its effects will be on their lives. They have a tremendous stake in this crisis—and we have a responsibility to ensure they are able to live healthy, productive lives, and to set the right example, by getting the vaccine.