YACVic presented at a hearing to the Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic on 27 August. The presentation will inform the Victorian Government's ongoing response to the pandemic and the recovery out of restrictions.

Katherine Ellis, our CEO and Thomas Feng, our Media and Communications Manager (who is also a young person) represented YACVic and their opening statements have been published below.

Katherine Ellis' statement

Ms ELLIS: Thank you, Chair and committee. We appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I am speaking to you from, Wurundjeri country, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I would also like to acknowledge the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people who are separated from community and country at the moment due to COVID-19 restrictions. I know this is a very tough time for them.

My name is Katherine Ellis, and I am the CEO of Youth Affairs Council Victoria, or YACVic. YACVic is the peak body for young people in Victoria and the youth sector that works with and supports them.

I want to start by being very clear that this COVID-19 pandemic represents a major crisis that will fundamentally change the lives of all young people in Victoria. They have been abruptly and disproportionally slammed by this unprecedented health and economic situation, and it will define their generation and potentially have devastating long-term impacts on their lives.

The pandemic has actually highlighted and exacerbated many of the challenges that young people were already facing, and in addition there are young people who now need supports who never had previously contemplated it. The fast pace of the change has also made it extremely challenging for the government and services to keep
up with the impacts and put solutions in place. Already marginalised young people have been very hard hit. In particular there is an increased risk from family violence and abuse, of homelessness and disabled young people have experienced a lack of support to access education and services. Young people in rural and regional
areas and those experiencing socio-economic disadvantage have struggled to access technology for school and or services, and young people from non-English-speaking backgrounds have taken on additional responsibilities at home, helping siblings with online learning and interpreting the deluge of COVID information for their family and community.

At the same time young people are making enormous sacrifices and bearing many burdens to keep the community safe, and that needs to be acknowledged. Some sacrifices are obvious and much discussed in the public sphere. For example, severely disrupted education, tens of thousands of young people losing their jobs and many being excluded from income support measures, social isolation. And, closely associated with all of those, significant increases in mental ill health.

Other burdens are less recognised. Some young people have been unable to afford rent and have had to move home to very difficult family situations. There is increased racism and discrimination and things like a loss of sport-related social connection and leadership opportunities. There are some sacrifices that may only be seen as
important by the young people themselves, but they are actually a vital part of their transition to adulthood, and they are things like missing once-in-a-lifetime rites of passage like graduations and school trips, and being forced into isolation with family at a crucial time when normally they would be expanding their friendship networks, exploring their identities and asserting their independence.

On a brighter note, in times of trouble across history young people have stepped up, and we have seen that in relation to COVID-19 as well. Young people are telling us every day that they want to be part of the solutions to the COVID-19 disaster, and they deserve seats at the table. 

The silver lining of the crisis has been an increase in collaboration across the sector and beyond as we all work to a common purpose. YACVic and others in the sector have put significant efforts into bringing together leaders, workers and young people to share information, to support each other and to learn new skills as we adjust to the new normal. It is gratifying that the government has already recognised some critical needs of young people in this crisis. The most significant example is the significant large investment in additional mental health supports, which were discussed at length in the last session with Orygen. A coalition of youth-focused organisations led by YACVic has also received funding from the Working for Victoria Fund for additional youth outreach capacity and to strengthen the youth sector, which is very welcome. We genuinely hope that there will be more investment in the capacity of youth sector organisations to deal with the growing demand for services.

I will also note that youth organisations and other community organisations which work with young people play a very important role in youth well-being, including mental health. They do vital work in prevention and early intervention and identifying young people who need a referral to clinical services or other services, especially where young people have trusted relationships with those organisations.

We have been very pleased to see the government move quickly to create new jobs in the public service specifically for young people. It
would be very positive if the private sector was also willing to step up to create entry-level opportunities for young people. The Working for Victoria model also offers potential to create jobs to deliver public good and employ teams of young people, providing jobs, purpose, skills development and social connection. This crisis is still unfolding, so it will be important to monitor the various supports that have been provided and be ready to do more as and when it is necessary, and also to consult more with the communities and the cohorts that are being impacted to really understand from their lived experience where there are gaps and if new concerns are emerging.

Governments, business, unions, philanthropy and community organisations will all need to work collectively to make serious and long-lasting investments in a youth-focused recovery.

–Katherine Ellis

We also need to start looking to the future to a youth-focused recovery. Part of helping young people cope with the current emergency is giving them assurance that thought, care and resources are already being put into a recovery strategy. They are looking down the barrel of a sustained period of major unemployment and underemployment, so hearing now that the government is making plans to address that will help reduce their anxiety and stimulate motivation and trust.

A youth-focused recovery will need to include essential short-term measures, and it also provides a chance to address pre-existing systemic issues that affect the lives of young people. It should also have a strong element of youth participation so young people are meaningfully involved in the decisions that affect their lives. Decent
work and secure housing are foundational needs and are also critical to young people’s mental health and wellbeing. A COVID-19 recovery must prioritise creation of meaningful jobs for young people, giving them a foot on the ladder at a crucial time as well as purpose and community connection. For those who cannot find a job, permanently raising the rate of income support to a decent level will allow young people to live, develop, volunteer and search for work with dignity and wellbeing.

Clearly a youth-focused recovery will also require investment in a strong youth sector to support these young people through the short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19. YACVic has recently worked with the youth sector and other experts, including young people themselves, to develop a set of priority recommendations for a
youth-focused recovery. Governments, business, unions, philanthropy and community organisations will all need to work collectively to make serious and long-lasting investments in a youth-focused recovery—in young people as agents for change as well as emerging citizens with unique needs and perspectives in need of support and development. We need a youth-focused recovery from this crisis for all our futures. 

Thomas Feng's statement

Good afternoon, committee and Chair, and thank you for this opportunity. I am Thomas Feng, and I would like to acknowledge that I am currently on Wurundjeri land of the Kulin nation, that sovereignty was never ceded and this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.

I am a first-generation Chinese Australian who grew up in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne in Noble Park and Mount Waverley, and I am a young person who, through my work as YACVic’s Media and Communications Manager, has spoken with an extensive number of young people trying to cope with COVID-19.

I am here today to represent their stories and their voices, which have not been heard throughout this time, and to also share my experiences of translating the various policy changes and restrictions so that they resonate with young people.

Young people are told going through school and growing up today that we can become whoever we want to be when we grow up, but I think COVID-19 has uncovered the difficult challenges that already lay ahead for young people. This is a generation-defining pandemic, and young people will be disproportionately impacted long term.

COVID-19 has had so many unforeseen impacts, as Katherine has outlined, and young people have made enormous sacrifices across our entire lives.

We have been blamed and chastised for breaking rules, but there is no doubt that young people take this virus very seriously and understand the importance of following the rules and getting through these really hard times.

We are living through the hardships and the challenges, and we are seeing our lives disrupted every day. 

What we need as young people is other young people championing how to cope and support each other throughout the restrictions and to understand how to navigate the deluge of information coming through.

Rather than relying on traditional forms of media, young people want to see easy-to-understand information via the
channels that we use.

As young people we want to be optimistic and hopeful, and we do not just want to go back to how things were before. We want to build a better future for everyone.

–Thomas Feng

What young people want is to be empowered to take action and to be consulted on the solution. We want recognition for the good stories that we are bringing in these difficult times, and those stories include people like Alex Dekker, who is feeding 50 000 frontline workers each and every week through Alex Makes Meals, and the Letters against Iso initiative started by students at MacRobertson Girls High School.

As young people we want to be optimistic and hopeful, and we do not just want to go back to how things were before. We want to build a better future for everyone.

Young people want a youth-focused recovery that also addresses issues which have been exacerbated by COVID-19. We need a youth employment plan with dedicated job creation for young people. We need young people at the decision-making table on the issues that affect us. And we need a strong youth sector to ensure that every young person can be supported to become whoever we want to be when we grow up. Thank you.

Looking for resources and supports on managing through COVID-19? We've developed an A-Z of COVID-19 resources based on different topics, and you can also find the COVID-19 resources YACVic has developed on our blog here.