Close to 100 young people seized their opportunity for sharing their experiences of living through the COVID-19 pandemic, getting information and discussing their challenges and ways forward in a webinar organised by the Youth Advisory Champions for Health (YACH). This happened just days after the Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe made a passionate appeal to the youth to take charge of the pandemic. In their online discussions, young people demonstrated readiness to play their role, they also aired their appeals for accurate information, more support and quality health services.
The young people reported that the safety measures, set by the Ministry of Health after a few people tested positive for COVID-19, affect their day to day life. Young people raised concerns about the financial impact of pandemic control measures. As a result of the call to stay at home and respective movement restrictions, young people lost jobs and income opportunities. Prices of public transport increased. Transport became expensive, which affects young people who must commute to work and earn a living. Others shared that young people cannot afford to buy face masks. “Is there any way that the masks can be distributed for free especially in rural areas? Because at my area, they are being sold at a price of 50 (Ksh), which is seriously affecting the vulnerable,” requested a male participant during the webinar. The Government of Kenya issued a directive in April that face masks must be worn in public spaces. Everyone, including young people, risks arrest and conviction if they fail to wear masks.
Mental health issues
The young people felt that the new restrictions were already causing major mental health issues. Youth were already feeling overwhelmed with the stay at home call since learning institutions have been closed since mid-March and social distancing measures limit young people’s opportunities of engaging with each other. “A lot of young people are likely to face a lot of mental issues especially now that there’s nowhere to physically vent. How can we go about it?” asked one male participant. The Kenyan media offered some advice on how to stay healthy by covering what Kenyan sportsmen and sportswomen do to maintain their fitness and broadcasting interviews with health experts. However, the youth felt that more needs to be done in ensuring that young people are engaged.
Young people were also concerned about mental health problems would affect their careers and future. “How do we ensure that individuals with mental health disorders get help especially during this time? We have a lot of fear and (face) discrimination which will have a lot of effects afterwards,” commented a female participant. Most of the health facilities continue to offer health services and should include much needed mental health services. Recently, the Ministry of Health formed a task force to assess mental health and mental health services in Kenya. While mental health services may not be available to young people, stereotypes and stigma around mental health may refrain them from seeking help. LVCT Health offers psychosocial support and counselling through the 1190 toll-free hotline.
Risk of gender-based violence
Young people were concerned about increase in gender-based violence (GBV) and subsequent separation of families due to movement restrictions and its effects. A participant wondered, “how can we help reduce increased violence, abuse and exploration the young people are going through due to COVID-19?” Since the measures to contain the corona pandemic were reported to cause stress and anxiety, treating each other with respect and kindness were important to keep everyone in the family and community safe. Those at risk of experiencing or using violence are advised to identify a trusted friend, relative, neighbour, local leader or service provider to talk to and make safety plans. A health care provider encouraged that “social distancing doesn’t mean disconnecting from friends or family. Let’s explore other ways of interacting but keeping in mind all preventive measures…sii tunaeza chat, phone calls.”
Young people inquired about GBV services. “How do we go about on cases of GBV during this Covid19 period?” asked one participant. LVCT Health staff informed the youth participants about the different toll-free lines that offer information and services. These include the national GBV Helpline (1195), Child Help Line (116, 0722 116 116), National Council for Children’s Services (0800 221 0080), MSF ambulance and post-rape care services in Nairobi (0711 400 506), and Nairobi County GBV SMS platform (21094).
Sexual and reproductive health needs
Most youth expressed their fears of testing positive for COVID-19 and the subsequent quarantine measures. Young people were even more concerned that their health needs may be overlooked affected during the pandemic as the provision of routine health services already overstretched the country’s resources for health. They feared devastating impact on their future as a result. Young people were hesitant to seek routine health services, because they worried that visiting a health facility exposed them to COVID-19. A healthcare provider agreed with the youth, “since the pandemic started the facilities have recorded a low turnout of people coming to access services and this also includes AYPs [adolescents and young people] …it is good to ask ourselves where these people have gone to.”
Participants’ biggest concerns centred around sexual and reproductive health services during this pandemic. “How can we ensure that young people continue to access appropriate information about their sexual and reproductive health?” asked a male participant. Another expressed concerns about the effects lack of contraception would have in the lives of youth, “do we anticipate high pregnancy rates at the end, yes, if people are not educated about how to minimize chances of getting pregnancy especially now access to contraceptives may be significantly affected.” In addition, concerns about new HIV infections were raised, “what measures are there to ensure that AYG living with HIV are safe even after deliveries because most of the ANCs [antenatal care services] are going from monthly to 3 months …to ensure no new HIV related cases in the near future?”
LVCT Health staff informed the participants about the comprehensive HIV services they offered and adjustments to the same. LVCT Health works with trained peer educators across the country who follow up people who need HIV prevention service and provide support for those living with HIV to access their medication. Clients do not need to come to the facilities as often as before since they are given more doses of anti-retroviral medicines at a time. Preventing clients’ movements and decongesting facilities aim at reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection among the vulnerable group of people living with HIV. The YACH leadership have developed a call to action to lobby the respective county leaders to support the youth during and after the pandemic.
YACH are youth health advocacy groups. YACH work in eight counties in Kenya. LVCT Health is a founding and supporting organisation of the YACH groups. In the webinar, LVCT Health supported YACH leaders by providing information on COVID-19, demystify myths, sharing best practices of staying healthy and advising how to engage community and county leaders.
By Alfred Itunga