The old and the young: How COVID-19 expands the generational gap in Italy and Central Asia

By Aliya Tskhay

The whole world is wrecked by the pandemic of Coronavirus (COVID-19): the healthcare systems of a multitude of countries are strained, the global economy is in recession, travels are restricted and vaccine promise is still in progress despite recent breakthroughs. However, there is another impact from the COVID-19 that can outlast all the others – it is a societal rift between older and younger generations. This is especially evident when we compare the countries with a predominant older population (such as Italy) and countries with a higher younger population percentage (like in Central Asia – in Uzbekistan, for example, 42 percent of the population is under 25). Although the number of cases among different age groups varies tremendously country-to-country, the divide between the old and the young will be expanding based on socio-economic factors. 

Looking at the number of cases and fatality rates only can present a very drastically different image of the situation around COVID-19 in Italy and Central Asia.  According to the WHO data at the time of writing this article, these were the number of cases and deaths: 

Italy – 995,463 cases (42,330 deaths);

Kazakhstan – 157,261 (2,306);

Kyrgyzstan – 64,360 (1,188);

Tajikistan – 11,417 (84);

Uzbekistan – 69,173 (589).

Yet, the societal impact of the pandemic on these countries and the challenges that the governments are presented could be very similar.

Statistically speaking the virus is dangerous for all age groups, but the mortality rate among people over 80 years old is five times higher than the global average, according to the UN. Governments faced a moral dilemma to save the old or to allow the young to continue working. The policies varied, thus, for example in Kazakhstan people over-65 were not allowed to leave the house at the peak in spring. 

The issue is not only related to higher mortality rates but also where the older people die. Mortality rates in care homes around Europe, especially in the UK, France highlight the vulnerability of such institutions to the virus. Having a higher percentage of at risk people living alone and needing help in the situation of lockdown creates further insecurities, as well as a tremendous psychological burden of not being able to see their families and friends. 

Family structure and societal life play an important role, as in Central Asia older people live with their children and multi-generational families are common. Hence, it creates a greater risk environment of the virus spread. More importantly, protection of vulnerable people would inevitably mean restrictions for many. This is critically important and a struggle for governments in the region, as it puts a dilemma of how to juggle maintaining economic activity while protecting public health. 

The economic impact of the national lockdowns was obviously different due to the individual structures of economies, yet evident in Italy and in Central Asia. The decline in production, halt to the services sector and the sharp decline of the demand for oil and gas (especially important for resource-dependent Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) already put a strain on developing economies of the Central Asian region. 

In Kazakhstan, only the unemployment rate is estimated to be above five percent with the poverty rate up to 12.7 percent, according to the recent report by the World Bank (COVID-19 and Human Capital). The decline of economic activity and a harder impact on self-employed and part-time workers, as well as vulnerable groups, is predicted for next year’s outlook, despite fiscal interventions. These are similar predictions to Italian economic recovery as lockdown and restrictions contributed to the increase in inactive workers, with the youth unemployment rate at 29.7 percent in Italy in September 2020.

For Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, COVID-19 brought the in-home migration of seasonal workers that were denied entrance to other neighbouring countries or Russia (the usual destination for such work). This meant that thousands of young people came back with limited opportunities for employment and most importantly income to support families, putting them at risk of extreme poverty. The International Organization For Migration (IOM) launched an urgent appeal for funding directed at supporting migrant communities due to the impact of COVID-19.

Education levels will also have an impact on the differences between older and younger generations, as millions of children are experiencing disruptions due to distance learning. For Central Asia, access to digital education is a matter of economic abilities and Internet coverage, neither of which are at 100 percent levels. Children in rural mountainous communities in Tajikistan, for example, were being offered to be educated via pre-recorded TV programs during the lockdown. As Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan still administer only partial in-class teaching, the availability of necessary technology and teacher qualifications on remote teaching remains a challenge. Similarly, the Italian government is also posed with the question of teacher recruitment, availability of devices for lower-income families and materials for digital education curriculum. These factors indicate that the education levels and literacy rates of the younger generation will inevitably be compromised. Consequently, the economic growth and prosperity of the future generation are also put at risk.

Another worrying example of the growing rift between generations is the popular demonstrations and discontent due to economic hardships and increasing inequalities. In Central Asia demonstrations bring also the political element of general dissatisfaction with authorities. Thus, after demonstrations and violent clashes after recent elections in October 2020 in Kyrgyzstan, the government buildings were seized and the government cabinet and President resigned. Across Italy people discontent with government restriction policies also clashed with police forces. The eruption of violence and demonstrations is an indication of the tense atmosphere our societies are living through and how perceptive to hardships the younger generation is. 

Finding the way out of national lockdowns could ease such tensions. However, with the promising results from the vaccine trials, we are now faced with another question of whom to prioritise. Protecting vulnerable people will ease the strain on the healthcare system, but vaccination of the young will ensure the return to normality and a functioning economy. 

The OECD report on COVID-19’s impact on youth stresses the application of an intergenerational lens on government policies for the way ahead. It also provides a range of guidelines and suggestions for the states to be mindful of the impact on youth and older generations for years to come, as the world is dealing with the pandemic. This is a crucial message to pay attention to from an international organisation that focuses on economy and development and works across different countries. Hence, it raises the importance of this issue not only for the expert community but for general public.  

In these months of dealing with the virus, we learned a lot about it and eventually we will know how to cure it, but the societal problems the situation unveiled might stay with us longer and have a much more profound effect. Thus, the current pandemic has demonstrated the urgent need for enhanced international cooperation in the strife to contain and combat the virus, and even more so for societies to come together to maintain social cohesion and economic prosperity for all. 

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