Mexico’s Youth Leaders Connect and Protect Communities in COVID-19 Fight

As our world passes the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, a global health crisis that has caused millions of deaths and impacted communities across the world, it’s natural for fear and uncertainty to dim daily lives. But by studying examples of how some regions are advancing hope through innovation, the global community has much reason for optimism.

One standout case comes from Mexico – the story of what’s possible when we invest in one of our most important resources: young people.

It is no surprise that Mexico’s youth have willingly stepped into leadership roles to confront COVID-19 and prevent its deadly spread. Mexico’s rich culture and history run deep with cases of empowered young people standing forward as problem-solvers, communicators and change-makers. Through their fresh ideas and perspectives, which embrace innovation while honoring heritage, Mexican youth have leadership in their DNA.

Youth at the Center of Solutions to Assist Local Communities

Project HOPE — a global health and humanitarian assistance organization — worked with allies in the public, private, academic, and nonprofit sectors to launch a National Committee of Youth for COVID-19 Prevention in Mexico, with funding support from AstraZeneca. The committee and its allies represent a unified national effort to drive progress in the fight against COVID-19.

In their own words, young participants describe the program’s goals: “Thanks to this (committee), I could spread my knowledge with my family, friends and the general population without generating fear with [inaccurate or misleading] information,” says 21-year-old Jorge Lopez, a representative of Guerrero state.

Adds Octavio Moreno, a representative of Aguascalientes state: “This pandemic is relentless, taking away loved ones, businesses, years of people’s work, including the life of my grandmother, who died from COVID-19. It is not easy to say goodbye to a relative in this circumstance, where we could not see her. I will do everything I can so that no one else has to go through this; I want to be a factor of change for my state to raise awareness and face this virus.”

Odeth Figueroa, a 21-year-old representative of Guanajuato state says: “I am interested in promoting the culture of information, and this program is the perfect tool to achieve a common goal with the principle that prevention is the best medicine to help reduce the spread of this virus,”

[MORE: Countries Without Reported COVID-19 Cases]

Through participation in the committee, 34 leaders will gain expertise in the prevention of COVID-19 through a curriculum validated by the Ministry of Health and implemented by Project HOPE and Yo Quiero, Yo Puedo (I Want, I Can), a Mexico-based youth empowerment organization. Trained youth will serve as the main disseminators of information among their families, communities and the country. The monthlong training not only covers information about the virus and COVID-19, prevention measures and how the virus is spread; it also incorporates methods for maintaining physical and mental health during the pandemic. The goal is to increase resilience and help youth and their communities face the social, academic and work-related effects of the pandemic.

The result is a nationwide youth-led pandemic response, focused on combating misinformation, preventing the spread of COVID-19, and fostering physical and mental resilience among youth, their families, and their communities.

Mexico’s Unique Challenges and Opportunities

Mexico has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 2.2 million confirmed cases and close to 200,000 deaths as of March 24, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The factors contributing to those numbers are complex, including high underlying rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, placing the population at greater risk for serious illness from COVID-19.

According to the World Health Organization, diabetes is the leading cause of death in Mexico. The 2018 Encuesta Nacional de Salud y Nutrición (ENSANUT), or National Health and Nutrition Survey, showed approximately 75.2% of Mexico’s adults are overweight or obese, and more than 1 in 10 have diabetes. The pandemic response is further complicated by an array of challenges, including:

— Low and inequitable access to testing;

— Families caring for patients with COVID-19 symptoms at home without an oximeter to detect low oxygen levels, therefore delaying care for those with serious COVID-19 symptoms;

— Overworked medical personnel;

— And insufficient use of timely intensive care protocols and equipment, such as intubation and ventilation that can save lives.

[MORE: Countries Seen to Have the Most Well-Developed Public Health Care Systems]

Notably, people in marginalized communities, such as the working-class borough of Iztapalapa in Mexico City, are disproportionately dying of COVID-19. In addition to strengthening the health care system’s response to COVID-19, there is an urgent need for more public health messaging to encourage timely care for patients and most importantly, to slow the spread of the virus through preventative behaviors such as wearing masks and physical distancing.

Further, the secondary effects of COVID-19 on young people cannot be ignored. Many marginalized youth are already confronting challenges such as poverty, lack of economic opportunities, gender-based violence, gang activity, and substance abuse. They now also combat illness and death of family members, greater economic instability, increased interfamily violence, anxiety over missing school or transitioning to virtual courses, and social isolation – all of which can affect physical and mental health.

In fact, as of March 2020, unplanned pregnancies among women ages 15 to 19 increased by 20%, according to the Consejo Nacional de Población (CONAPO), or National Population Council. Suicide — which is alarmingly the second cause of death among young people ages 15 to 29 in Mexico — also increased to 9.3% among people ages 20 to 24[DSA4] in this time period. With many health risks exacerbated by pandemic conditions, young people are a critical population. Yet, they can also be engaged to play a key role in advancing the fight against COVID-19.

Even as vaccine delivery expands, it’s essential to invest in people as leaders in the continued fight against coronavirus. When passionate young people are given platforms for their voices to be heard, society’s greatest threats shift toward collaboration and creative solutions. And when youth are embraced for their leadership potential as key stewards of safe, healthy communities, people are better connected, protected, and prepared to thrive despite daunting challenges, including a world-changing pandemic.

Youth Develop Projects to Promote Health Messaging

Provided with an opportunity to lead, over 1,200 youth ages 18 to 24 applied to participate in the National Committee of Youth for COVID-19 Prevention, with letters of interest that spoke to their experience and commitment to combating COVID-19. Many lost relatives to the virus or witnessed the impact of the pandemic on their Indigenous communities; others are studying medicine or want to do more to combat misinformation and prevent COVID-19 in their families, schools, universities, hospitals, and communities.

Prioritizing the search for young leaders from communities hardest-hit by the pandemic, the Instituto de Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, or National System for the Integral Development of the Family, shared a list of 10 cities across Mexico that were the most affected by COVID-19. Project HOPE and the Ministry of Education expanded this search to include participation from every state of the Mexican Republic and Mexico City, including equal gender representation among participants.

The participants represent each state of the Republic of Mexico. The Mexico City representatives come from the Iztapalapa Municipality – which is considered one of the most vulnerable to increases in COVID-19 cases in the country. Together, they will gain the knowledge and skills needed to replicate critical COVID-19 prevention messages and help save lives in their communities.

The 34 youth leaders will utilize their training to develop and implement impactful projects to promote public health messaging contextualized for their urban and rural communities, schools, universities and teaching hospitals, with a focus on honoring their indigenous communities and using messaging that is culturally contextualized to reach indigenous populations.

In this digital age, further encouraged by pandemic-related quarantines, the National Committee of Youth for COVID-19 Prevention will also utilize social media and mass communications platforms, leveraging technology and digital information systems to transmit public health prevention messaging to people across the country.

While the global health challenges our world faces are urgent and immense, solutions are within reach. Many begin at the local level. Mexico’s National Committee of Youth for COVID-19 empowers young people to emerge as leaders in the face of one of humanity’s greatest health crises ever, offering an inspiring example of how individuals and communities can come together to deliver hope. Young people are the future’s greatest stakeholders, and when young leaders are elevated to drive ideas and advance solutions, our global outlook can shift from uncertainties to great possibilities.

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