7 November 2023
A collaboration between sociologist Holly Thorpe and illustrator Jean Donaldson.
Aroha* turned 16 just one week before the first nationwide lockdown in Aotearoa New Zealand. Before the arrival of Covid-19 on our shores, she had been focused on school, sport and having fun with her friends.
During the first lockdown, Aroha willingly moved from part-time to full-time work at her local supermarket to help her family out with the bills. Both her father and older brother had lost their jobs, so she had offered to increase her hours.
Initially, she enjoyed going to work because it was an opportunity to get out of her crowded home and to see some of her friends. But as time went on, she saw the strain of the pandemic on her community. She recalls being verbally abused by shoppers taking out their stress on young workers, and this seemed “really unfair”, particularly when such attacks left some of her co-workers in tears in the tearoom.
After work, she would walk home, take her uniform off at the door, and immediately put it in the washing machine — trying to limit the possibility of bringing the virus into her home. She was particularly worried about her 85-year-old grandmother, but also her mother, who had a serious heart condition. After a full day of work and washing her uniform, and having a quick play with her young nieces and nephews who were staying with them too, she retired to her bedroom to catch up on her school work.
At times, exhaustion took over and she fell asleep on her bed. Other times, the distraction of social media called. Aroha felt bad about spending so much time on her phone, but it was a way to connect with her friends, whom she missed deeply. Sometimes it was TikTok, Instagram, Netflix or YouTube that would absorb her entirely for the next few hours.
While social media helped her to escape from the stress of pandemic life, she felt bad that she wasn’t keeping up with her school work. Before the lockdowns, she’d been in the top teams for netball and touch, and was training for an upcoming waka ama competition, but all of this was cancelled. While she understood why, Aroha was sad to miss out on these important events.
Young women played important roles in supporting their families and communities during the Covid-19 pandemic. Aroha was just one of the 45 young women that we interviewed about their experiences during the pandemic. Overwhelmingly, these young women “stepped up”.
Young women, particularly Māori, Pacific and those from diverse ethnic and migrant backgrounds, carried increased responsibilities in the home, including childcare, cleaning, cooking and shopping. Our multicultural research team found that the weight of the pandemic did not fall evenly on the shoulders of young women; gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic factors combined to impact young women’s pandemic lives differently.
Young women were forced to grow up quickly, often taking on adult responsibilities in the home, the workplace, and their communities. While many did so willingly, this ‘double burden of care’ took a toll on their schooling, mental health and wellbeing.
Young people are now back to school, sport, and socialising with their friends, but the pandemic took a significant toll on many young women. Even after the lockdowns ended, many young women spoke of increased social anxieties, body image concerns, a loss of confidence in their educational and sporting skills, and new questions about their futures.
The radical disruption to their everyday lives and routines during a critical stage of identity development, prompted young women like Lady* to “question the future [because] you don’t really know what’s gonna happen”. Feelings of uncertainty for the future impacted upon their everyday motivation, their feelings of hope, and social connection.
Young women took on new roles and responsibilities at home, at work and in their communities. They missed key milestones and events, and critical phases of social development. Many young women continue to grieve some of these losses, and continue to struggle rebuilding social connections and aspirations. Young women were often the invisible glue holding families together, but they rarely received the credit they deserve for their efforts during the pandemic.
In a context where many want to close the pandemic chapter entirely, it is sometimes hard to see, or to speak to, the challenges experienced by our young people during this difficult time in our families, communities and collective history. But for many young women, the emotional toll of the pandemic continues to be carried today.
There is a need for greater acknowledgement and empathy for the challenges young women have gone through over recent years, and the additional support some may need to get back on their feet.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of research participants.
Holly Thorpe is a Principal Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini and a recipient of a Royal Society Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellowship focused on women’s wellbeing during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.
Jean Donaldson is a designer and illustrator who works with Toi Āria: Design for Public Good. She is based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at https://jeanmanudesign.com/.