Vancouverite Chenille Wong thinks young adults her age can do better.
Like many people in British Columbia this week, 18-year-old Wong shook her head when she found out many of the people linked to a recent spike in cases in the province were under 30.
“I feel like they’re giving us a bad name or a bad reputation of being irresponsible,” said Wong, who has mostly been holed up at home with her family.
“It makes me really frustrated because I feel like me and a lot of people I know are doing their part in social distancing.”
The number of COVID-19 cases among most age categories in B.C. has remained fairly stable over the past few weeks, except for a notable rise among people age 20-29, with a milder increase among people age 30-39.
Many of the new cases are linked to an outbreak in Kelowna from earlier this month when people gathered at local bars and restaurants.
Meanwhile, a large crowd of young people who gathered this week for a drum circle at Third Beach in Stanley Park also garnered headlines and judgment.
Stuart Poyntz, an associate professor of communications at Simon Fraser University, says it’s important to be critical of media headlines that support a sense of collective anxiety about young people and their willingness to support COVID-19 prevention measures is overblown.
“When young people are part of stories, there’s often a kind of panic and a sense of, ‘Oh what are the kids doing?'” Poyntz said.
Poyntz says context is important. The daily number of new cases — about 30 to 50 over the last week — is still relatively low compared to other provinces and the U.S., which suggests that most people are doing their part.
And although COVID-19 cases have tripled in B.C., health officials aren’t panicking.
Much of Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s messaging has been directed toward young people, but both she and Health Minister Adrian Dix have maintained that most people are doing their part.
Earlier this week, Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, told CBC News B.C. needs to “dial it back” a bit, but he didn’t think people needed to be unduly concerned.
SFU professor Stuart Pointz says most young people appear to have been following social distancing guidelines. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
Poyntz says it’s worth considering that youth are adversely affected by COVID-19 in several ways, one of them being that they are often the target audience for businesses like restaurants, movie theatres and bars that have recently reopened.
“Those [businesses] are calling out to young people to come here and gather,” he said.
I think it is silly to blame 20yr olds when the real culprits are the bars and restaurants which are not enforcing distancing.<br><br>Put the onus on those making money in the situation, not socially starved young folks. Folks will follow the rules if establishments enforce them. <a href=”https://t.co/c2A2Mffqkr”>https://t.co/c2A2Mffqkr</a>
From a communications standpoint, Poyntz says youth are subject to mixed messages about their expected role in the battle against the virus.
On the one hand, they’re told to physically distance and stay in small groups like everyone else, he says. On the other, they’re often told they’re less likely to suffer severe effects from the coronavirus, which is true.
“In that sense they can be the kind of frontline of our response, they can be the first test cases,” said Poyntz about how the province fares during Phase 3 of its COVID-19 recovery plan.
Data shows young people are contracting the coronavirus at higher rates than earlier on during the pandemic, but SFU professor Stuart Poyntz says youth are also more likely to be targeting by businesses that have reopened. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
Lisa Lu, a 17-year-old who is planning to start studying at the University of British Columbia this fall, says she thinks people her age who contravene COVID-19 guidelines aren’t getting the message that they could pass on the virus to those who are more vulnerable.
“It’s almost like we’re like we’re perfectly fitting into that stereotype that older generations are looking at us and criticizing us for,” Lu said.
Lu says health officials should do more to target her demographic, such as using age-appropriate tools like social media instead of television and radio ads they’re not likely to watch or hear.
Experts say health officials should do more to target younger demographics through social media. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
Eric Li, an associate professor in the School of Management at UBC’s Okanagan campus, agrees.
Li says now that institutions like schools have shut down for the summer and aren’t passing on Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s message, health officials should get more creative and use social media to target younger audiences.
“How can we use social media influencers, celebrities, to pass this information to the younger demographics, really stepping up role models and sending them a message?” he said.
The Health Ministry says it has encouraged all people to become social influencers and send out the message about keeping safe via various social platforms.
It also says it has worked with Creative B.C., the agency that supports the film industry, to have local celebrities amplify the province’s health messages. It also worked with the Vancouver Canucks and other social media influencers.
Poyntz says there is one part of the province’s messaging that should be followed by everyone, regardless of age.
“The messaging Bonnie Henry has conveyed about respectful responses without harsh judgment is really important,” he said.