New York – In parts of Europe, new coronavirus cases have been creeping up again. While this is by no means a second wave, and case numbers are still lower than they were before, an interesting demographic pattern has started to emerge.
Whereas elderly populations had the greatest share of new cases early in the crisis, younger age groups are now taking the lead. People aged between 20 and 39 account for about 35 percent to 40 percent of new cases in England, Belgium and the Netherlands. In Spain, 15- to 29-year-olds account for more than a fifth of new cases.
While Germany’s age breakdown early in the pandemic looked slightly different, the country is seeing a similar trend now. Globally, data from the World Health Organization show the proportion of 15- to 24-year-olds infected with the disease has increased three-fold in the past five months.
So, what’s going on? The first possible explanation is increased testing. At the height of the outbreak, only the very sick — who are, more often than not, elderly — were able to get tested, while those with mild symptoms were told to ride out the illness at home without a diagnosis. With more capacity to test and contact-tracing programs in place, countries are catching milder or asymptomatic cases in younger people that previously went uncounted.
But social-distancing fatigue is also a big factor, especially in age groups that don’t feel at risk. Anyone who’s been near an urban green space or pub recently has seen the signs: Huge groups drinking not quite a meter apart; friends sharing a cigarette; hugs and kisses as people meet up for the first time in months. The WHO has even pleaded with the world’s youth “to resist their urge to party.”
It isn’t surprising that young adults are trying to return to normal life. Many twentysomethings found themselves living and working in the bedrooms of cramped, rented accommodation. In Britain, people aged 16 to 24 have on average only about 26 square meters of liveable room in their homes. Even for those who escaped to the relative comfort of their parents’ houses, it can still be lonely being separated from peers.
The question is how to get young people back onto the program of protecting themselves to protect older family members, colleagues and fellow commuters from infection. It’s not as simple as asking them to resist the urge to party. In London, young urbanites are far more likely to live in shared accommodation. That increases the number of potential transmissions, especially when each housemate has a separate social life.
There needs to be clearer and more consistent information. It’s not always easy to know what’s permissible and what isn’t at any given time. Health officials could also sound the alarm more about young COVID-19 patients who are reporting prolonged, lingering symptoms such as chest pain and extreme fatigue. The messaging would be more effective by going straight to where young people spend much of their time: social media.
In Preston, a city in the north of England that’s just reentered lockdown, the council leader has urged young people, “Don’t kill granny.” Done right, such slogans can be a simple but effective way of reminding everyone that we’re in this together.
Lara Williams manages Bloomberg Opinion’s social media channels.
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