My (young) COVID life: Noé
Noé worked as an intern with the Social and Economic Policy Analysis team at the UNICEF Innocenti – Global Office of Research and Foresight between September 14th, 2022, and March 14th, 2023. Here they talk about their experience of COVID-19 as a young person navigating university life in the context of lockdown measures
I turned 21 in March 2020, around the time when the COVID-19 lockdowns were set up across Europe. I was studying in the Netherlands, and before the lockdown I had a very social life. I often met up with friends, we had dinner together almost every evening and organised activities such as movie nights, sports, and evenings at open mics and cafes with live performances.
When I first started hearing about COVID-19, I was not very worried. I believed it was like a flu or the seasonal cold. Yes, we had to be careful, but I did not expect the situation to reach global proportions. But with time, as the information got more alarming and governments started to implement regulations, I began to worry and felt confused. I wondered how my life as a student would change, and how serious the situation was going to be.
Little was known about the virus in the beginning. Gradually I became more interested (but also glued to) the incidence plots made available on online. I looked at the numbers every day and monitored the COVID-19 “risk zones” in cities. It became very important for me to have access to information and understand what was happening.
In this blog I explore my experiences of COVID-19 through 3 aspects of my life that changed because of the pandemic and lockdown.
Covid-19 and university studies
I began the semester on campus and was working on my bachelor’s thesis when the first lockdown measures were announced. As the number of COVID-19 cases increased, I moved out of the university campus and, like many international students, went back to my parents’ home in Belgium. I returned to campus, only for the last couple of weeks of the semester.
Classes were gradually moved online, and it had not been easy to follow. I ended up spending most of my time sitting at my desk on the computer. I found it difficult to physically separate my workspace and free time space and that made it challenging to detach from work at the end of the day but also challenging to focus on work during the day. I ended up feeling less productive but also not able to fully enjoy my free time.
Online classes were also often less clear than in person. Some professors were new to the technology, and the quality of the classes and our interactions depended heavily on the internet connection. Mine was not always very good and so, like many other class participants, I kept my camera off. While this online format allowed for a lot of flexibility and proposed new ways to work, it also meant that now most study related activities happened on the computer, including group projects. Overall, I found the format less appealing and less engaging compared to in person classes.
In these conditions, I found it more difficult to write my bachelor’s thesis. When we were still on campus, my friends and I would discuss our thesis topics, provide each other with feedback and advice, and share our experiences. During the lockdown, there were fewer possibilities for us to engage with each other. Instead, it became a solitary task. Looking back, I think it was difficult for me to adjust to spending more time alone; I felt less motivated and found myself circling in my own thoughts more often.
Relationships with friends
The lockdown added some distance between my friends and me. We could not meet as easily and kept in touch via WhatsApp and other social media platforms. But it is not always easy to stay in touch with friends on WhatsApp as it is a very “static” activity. Our ability to participate in sports and cultural activities was limited and communicating online with them only added to the screen time. I also spent more time doing individual activities, like watching movies, but also spent time on more ‘informative’ content such as online courses. I went on walks, almost every day, but after a while they became annoying and repetitive. It was interesting to have all this free time, I used it to sign up to many online classes that explored topics that I was not studying at university and gained new skills. But I would have preferred to stay connected with my friends.
The isolation was not easy. I relied on my friends at university – we often ate dinner together, went on cultural excursions, or simply walked around the city. They were great times to have new experiences but also to reflect on our learning and help with the completion of our assignments. On the other hand, I also learned to take time for myself and learned to use online conference tools as ways to reach out to friends and students who were far away. In a way, the transition to online work made the world a bit smaller, it became normal to (virtually) meet people across time zones and exchange online. I am not sure it is something that would have developed as much if we were not made to work online.
(Re)learning to live at home with my family
I spent most of the first lockdown with my family (that is January 2020 to June 2020), and it was a difficult adjustment. I was not used to sharing my living space anymore and had to adapt my rhythm and routines to my family’s. While it was nice to be able to spend more time together, there were also tensions between us. I think that we all suffered from the lack of interactions with our respective friends and the sudden pause in our sports, cultural and social life/activities. With time things got better, we learned to understand our frustrations and to develop a positive environment within the household. It was also a good opportunity to do more things together. For example, I taught my brother to play chess and learned more about my siblings' interests and wishes.
At home, we had a lot of (sometimes tense) discussions around the COVID-19 pandemic, the people most affected by it, and our friends who were ill or in quarantine. We also talked a lot about the lockdown rules, often questioning whether they made sense to us, and other key issues like the COVID-19 tracking apps, and the vaccines. The language used by government officials was strong and gave a sense of urgency, while there were also loud instances of opposition to the lockdown regulations. Keeping up with the news, I remember at times finding the information relayed stressful and anxiety inducing. I think my parents and siblings also felt anxious and confused. We wondered, as a family, when we would be able to return to normalcy, while not being sure that ‘normal’ would be possible again.
The lockdowns continued in waves - a back and forth between alleviating restrictions, which allowed us to take a breath, and re-imposing them.
In September 2020, I moved to Sweden for my studies. Sweden had much fewer restrictions regarding social distancing, so it was nice to be able to return to a bit of normalcy. With time and the gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions, I felt as if I had regained my freedoms - traveling became easier, I could meet friends again, and culture became accessible. I noticed that I enjoyed my days more, I felt better, and I believed that I could achieve more.
While COVID-19 is still present today, the sense of urgency around it has gone away. I was quick to return to my normal life (I wanted it as fast as possible). Today, I hardly think about the lockdown period. When I reflect upon my experience of COVID-19, I am still perplexed - a lot happened in that period, but at the same time it felt as though we were standing still for a year or two. I find it difficult to reflect on this period and I prefer to focus on what comes next, with a strong feeling that I would like to make up for the time lost during the pandemic.
This Young (COVID) Life is a project that explores children and young people’s experiences, opinions, and reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic and related government responses. The pandemic brought changes to their daily lives, social spaces, relationships, and inner worlds.
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