The blame game: Have Ireland's youth been scapegoated during the pandemic?

Image Credit: David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Irish students and young people have been stereotyped as reckless unfairly during the Covid-19 pandemic by both the Government and media, argues Sophie Finn.

Throughout the pandemic there has been a constant focus on the perceived Covid wrongdoings of different groups in society. First it was vector children, then it was women going abroad for plastic surgery, then fables of socialite super spreaders who eat in at least 6 restaurants every night. The Irish government has shown a creativity for preying on the fear of the population during the pandemic, and placing collective responsibility on groups in society, arguably to divert blame. This blame placing has not only been supported by, but perpetuated and exaggerated by, the Irish media.  

A staple feature of this blame game has been the consistent scapegoating of students during the pandemic. In May an article in the Irish Independent proclaimed ‘Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy highest among 25 to 34-year-olds’, despite the opportunity for this cohort to avail of the vaccine being months away, and the date being based on a ‘tracker poll’. When 18–34-year-olds could receive the vaccine, headlines in the Irish Times more accurately said `Pharmacy phones ‘ringing off hook’ as young people chase vaccines’. An article in the Irish Examiner released in July reported ‘HSE warns against young people ‘intentionally’ getting Covid-19 to obtain digital cert’. This article was entirely based on the opinion of one midlands Doctor, who offered no proof in the article. 

“In May an article in the Independent proclaimed ‘Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy highest among 25- to 34-year-olds’, despite the opportunity for this cohort to avail of the vaccine being months away"

The popular narrative of the moment is that since reopening, cafés and restaurants can’t find anyone to work for them because lazy students are happy sitting on the couch getting the PUP. A recent article released in the Independent was entitled ‘PUP means we won’t have staff to serve office workers’ – city centre café owners’. If this narrative was viewed from a less one-sided perspective, perhaps it would be more obvious that many students were happy to return to their part time jobs, and the reason other establishments are finding it difficult to find employees lies in the manner they treat their employees. Students may not want to return to a workplace where they receive the minimum wage and are treated poorly.

This villainization and stereotyping implicates young people as committing Covid wrongs, and creates a societal discourse that blames young people for an increase in cases or restrictive lockdown measures. Since the onset of the pandemic, the Irish population has become more dependent on keeping up with news, this year Digital News Report Ireland found 70% of Irish respondents said they were extremely or very interested in the news, a 5% increase from 2020, and 53% expressed trust in the media. Many people watch the news several times a day to check on Covid-19 updates. If news broadcasts allow frightening updates on case numbers to be followed by stories about students enjoying themselves or meeting with friends, it’s understandable that a scared and isolated person will feel resentful and incensed at what is implied as the cause of their fear and isolation.

“Those who benefit from scapegoating are those who want focus and blame taken off themselves, it’s unfortunate that it works so well"

If people viewed the situation of young people with compassion they might reconsider their prejudices towards students. Many twenty-two-year-olds graduated online this year, after completing one and a half years of college in their bedroom, often moving home to their parents, for a year and a half, missing out on two summers of travel. Many students made up the front line during the pandemic working in minimum wage jobs. Many young people suffered from mental health problems during the pandemic. Data from the CSO reveals there has been an 80% decrease in the number of 18–34-year-olds who rated their life satisfaction as ‘high’ between 2018 and 2020.

Socialisation and availing of new experiences is integral in the development of young adults, yet this demographic has gone one and a half years without such a necessary pillar. Like all demographics, for the most part young people have followed Covid guidelines. In April, the Taoiseach said ‘outdoor activities will be the theme of the summer’, however when young people met on South William Street in June, Gardaí were discharged with batons. Throughout the summer other destinations popular for young people to meet were closed off, such as Portobello square and Stephens’ Green bandstand. These closures were then reported in media outlets as an attempt to prevent ‘antisocial behaviour’, yet young people were meeting their friends outdoors, as advised.  Of course antisocial behaviour must be prevented, however increased resources for public spaces rather than their closure would be much more accommodating for an ‘outdoor summer’.

There is no denying every demographic suffered immensely during the pandemic, and it would be foolish to attempt to say one suffered more than another. However, when a group is consistently blamed, and fear is preyed upon to reinforce this blame, it is hard to view the situation objectively or with compassion, and that is a disservice to any age group. Feeling incensed at a certain demographic for perceived misgivings does not help lower Covid cases or make the pandemic finish more quickly. Those who benefit from scapegoating are those who want focus and blame taken off themselves, it’s unfortunate that it works so well.