‘We gave up so much’: how Covid changed young people’s lives

In the next phase of the Guardian’s Covid Generation series, young people across the UK reflect on how the Covid pandemic changed their lives and continues to have an effect on their futures.

Marcel Charowski is 12 and lives in London with his parents and sister. He is in his first year of secondary school

Marcel Charowski: ‘I feel old before my time’. Photograph: Mark Pinder/The Guardian

The pandemic definitely changed me. I was a carefree child before it hit. Now I’m quite scared and negative. I feel old before my time. One of the worst things about Covid was not being able to visit my grandparents in Poland. I could see them getting older over Zoom and I was scared they would die before I could visit them again.

I also had the last year of primary school taken away from me. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to anyone or have a school leavers’ party. Then I lost those friends for good over lockdown. We tried to stay in touch online but we ran out of things to say and drifted away from each other.

It makes me sad that I won’t have any friends in my future from primary school. It’s also made me think about how people you think of as “for ever friends” can just drift away. I think that’s why I’ve found it hard to make new friends at secondary school.

My dad nearly died thanks to Covid. My mum spent a lot of time at the hospital with him for seven months and I had to wait at home, worried every day that she would come home and tell me he’d died. I was frightened all of that time. It’s probably why I worry a lot about death now. Death is always waiting for you. I worry that Covid will come back in a worse variant or we may get another plague. We’ve already had monkeypox.

Lockdown was very lonely for me. I was pretty much on my own, in front of a computer, doing home learning – which was incredibly hard because you can’t ask for help in the same way: you’re told what to do, then you log off and have to do the work on your own.

I would say that before Covid, I used to be worry-free but now I don’t really care about anything. I don’t get excited about anything.

Eva Yacobi is 14 and lives in the south of England. She had just started secondary school when lockdown began

Before Covid, I wanted to be a singer. Now I realise there’s nothing stopping me from being an entrepreneur, starting my own business or being a CEO of a big company.

It was all because of lockdown: I would never have started thinking like this otherwise. Home learning was so boring – I was so over sitting in front of my computer, doing endless worksheets and online lessons. I started making jewellery just for fun and then it occurred to me that I could start a business, sell what I’d made and give the profits to charity.

It was so amazing. I’d been quite lonely – I’d got to the stage where I barely talked to my friends online because we’d run out of stuff to say to each other – but when I started selling my jewellery I was having conversations with people from all over who wanted to buy what I’d made. That really opened my horizons back up. It felt amazing.

It was also really cool to realise that all that stuff that seemed so complicated really wasn’t: it wasn’t such a big deal to make a website, advertise across different social media sites. I realised I was much more capable than I’d thought.

Lockdown was also nice in that I got a lot closer to my family and, in particular, my younger brother. He and I spent a lot of time together, making art and talking for hours.

Lockdown wasn’t great though in the way I became totally dependent on screens though. I once spent three whole days watching Netflix during lockdown: I was completely obsessed. That feeling hasn’t really gone away: screens were everything to me for two years and remain a much bigger part of my life now lockdown has ended than they would have been if it had never happened. It’s not healthy but it’s how it is. I think my generation gave up a lot more than other generations over lockdown because these are such important years for us, where we find change hard. Our schools are putting a lot of effort into helping us transition back into real life but I don’t think politicians have really done enough.

Zubaydah Abdi is 19 and lives in Tottenham with her parents – a cab driver and special needs teacher – and her five siblings. She has just started studying medicine at King’s College London

Zubaydah Abdi
Zubaydah Abdi: ‘I shut down and spent a lot of time feeling hopeless and angsty’. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

The years between 16 and 18 are a blur to me: I feel as if I’m a 16-year-old stuck within a 19-year-old’s body without the experiences or skills to fulfil their responsibilities.

This does make me sad: the years I’ve missed are important ones – you’re supposed to have all sorts of experiences to form the adult you become. But my life during those key years had no substance to it: it was just school and home. I worry how that time lost and time wasted will come back to haunt me in later life.

The pandemic also had an impact on me emotionally. We had relatives who died and that, combined with all the other awful things that went on over those two years, it led to me becoming fairly desensitised. Instead of opening my gaze out to the wide world and thinking about my place in it, I focused in on myself. I shut down and spent a lot of time feeling hopeless and angsty.

When I got my teacher-assessed A-level grades, I didn’t know what to think. In all honesty, the grades I was given – 4 A*s – were probably better than I would have got had I done the exams. That’s given me a strong sense of impostor syndrome for university: I’m not going to feel that I’m qualified to be where I am and that’s going to be destabilising.

I opted to take a gap year so I could try to make up for all those lost experiences. I saved money by working in retail, which forced me to be out and about after so long being locked away. I then volunteered at a hospital in Tanzania, which helped confirm for me that medicine was what I wanted to do with my life. I also made friends from around the world to make up for those I lost during the pandemic.

All this helped resensitise me – it helped me open my gaze back up again, to burst the bubble I’d been living in and bringing me back to real life.

It also helped me channel the anger I’d built up over the pandemic. I realised that I could help people through medicine. I think before Covid, I would have used my medical degree to do research but now I want to use it to go out into the world and make it a better place. In that way, you could say that Covid been a good thing: it has focused my political and campaigning zeal.

Lily Smith is 19 and comes from Manchester. She is in her second year of studying musical theatre at Anglia Ruskin University

Lily Smith
Lily Smith: ‘Being given the time to make the decision to jump from science to the arts essentially saved my life’. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

I feel guilty saying this but the pandemic was, for me, a brilliant thing: it changed my life and I’ll always be grateful.

I was doing A-levels when Covid hit and intended to study sciences at university. I was already finding my courses hard but it got much worse during lockdown: it became impossible to get the support I needed. I quickly began feeling hopeless and overwhelmed. It was a really bleak time. My friends had been the only thing that had helped me when I’d been feeling stressed before Covid and when they were taken away from me by lockdown, it all crashed down.

I managed to get online counselling in May 2020 but after a while, the enforced isolation began to have a different effect: I realised that it was nice to be on my own in this almost womb-like environment where I didn’t need to be anything for anybody. I had stepped off the conveyor belt of school, expectation and achievement.

What I realised was that I’d been pushing myself towards this career in science because that’s what everyone told me I should do but it wasn’t who I actually was.

I found myself playing the piano more and suddenly I realised that I could choose to make myself happier – and the way to do that was to do something in the arts. Then it hit me: I was going to be a stage actor. My piano teacher recommended an amazing singing teacher who helped me work on auditions for universities.

I am so happy now. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I doubt I would have got the A-levels I needed to do science at university and that would have been so devastating that I honestly don’t know if I would still be here today.

Being given the time to make the decision to jump from science to the arts essentially saved my life. Without the pandemic, there’s no way that would have been possible.

Eoin O’Loughlin, 20, moved from Dublin to Dundee during the pandemic to study at the Scottish School for Contemporary Dance

Eoin O’Loughlin
Eoin O’Loughlin: ‘The pandemic stunted me at the exact moment I was ready to burst out creatively and socially’. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

I think my generation gave up a lot during the pandemic for older people because it hit at such a key, developmental time for us. We were happy to do it at the time but problems have come since because the government hasn’t acknowledged what we sacrificed. Some recognition and some recompense would help, in terms of support for the issues – around careers, education, mental health, physical health – that my generation suffered and still suffers as a direct result of pandemic policies introduced to protect the older generation.

The sad thing is that we gave so much up because we had a sense of community. But because there’s been no recognition of what we gave up or any attempt to recompense us, I think that sense of community has been burnt out of us. I’m not sure that my generation would be as happy or willing to sacrifice ourselves for other people a second time. I think we all feel our goodwill was taken advantage of.

The pandemic was dreadful for me. It stunted me at the exact moment I was ready to burst out creatively and socially, and start exploring and making my mark on the world. The pandemic meant that I had to adapt from being a child to an adult with no transition period – I missed my secondary school exams and graduation, along with my 18th and 19th birthdays. I then missed my first year of college in Dundee – and doing a dance degree at home, in front of a laptop screen is no fun at all.

I feel l’ve lost my younger self in the pandemic. I’ve lost that youthful exuberance and joyfulness I once had. I feel like an old man: even though lockdown is over, I just want to stay in now – read a book and drink some tea.

Because of the pandemic, however, I met the love of my life and am now happier than I’ve ever been. If you take Jack into account, all the pain of the pandemic was definitely worth it. But I wish I hadn’t had to go through that to meet him.

Michael Nesi-Pio, 20, was in his final year of A-levels when Covid hit

Michael Nesi-Pio
Michael Nesi-Pio: ‘It’s only when you experience something bad that you realise what makes you happy and what’s important’. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

I had planned to take a year out after A-levels to grow up a bit, travel and decide what I wanted to do at university and in life. But when Covid hit, I panicked and grabbed at the first degree course recommended to me by my teachers, which was chemistry.

I wasn’t able to take my exams and my teacher-assessed grades were crazily lower than my predictions, so I didn’t get my place at Manchester. I panicked again and snatched the first alternative course I could find, which was in Sheffield. I didn’t really want to do that course and I didn’t want to go to that university but with the world exploding, I didn’t feel I had any choices.

It was a disaster. In retrospect, I think I became seriously depressed. I was so lonely and miserable in lockdown in Sheffield. I spent all day in my room in the dark.

My girlfriend eventually persuaded me to stop pretending everything was OK and drop out. I left in March 2021 with a £11k debt. I reapplied to Manchester and got in to study politics and philosophy.

I’m not angry about the time I lost, the debt and the traumatic time I had though. I think what I went through was good because it’s only when you experience something bad that you realise what makes you happy and what’s important.

The past year has added to my character. I’m more resilient, more determined. I now prioritise my mental health and my own happiness.

My generation is in a difficult position now because older generations judge us and have expectations of us aligned to our chronological age. But we lost our formative years and haven’t had the life experiences that you need to grow up. We’re not given any leeway to reflect that.

I also get angry because I think my generation sacrificed more than other generations over Covid. I get angry at the experiences we missed. I get angry that we’ve never been given credit for what we sacrificed for others.

Kate Nichols, 20, is from Newcastle upon Tyne and is in her final year at Cardiff University

I got Covid on 21 December 2021 and, 10 months later, have still not recovered. Last week, I finally got my referral to a chronic fatigue syndrome clinic, which I’m hoping will help.

Christmas with Covid was really sad. We had to cancel my grandparents coming round, so they were on their own with no time to arrange their own alternative Christmas. I stayed in my bedroom: my Christmas dinner was left outside my door. After I’d finished, I had to wipe my plate, glass and cutlery with antiseptic wipes before my parents could collect it. It was lonely and grim.

I had Covid for a week and felt bad but after it went, I started getting endless infections: I had tonsillitis seven times, endless recurrent chest infections, breathing problems, brain fog and was constantly exhausted. I was taking so many antibiotics that I was quite scared: at one point, I was taking eight tablets a day and they still weren’t working, so the doctors had to give me stronger ones.

I still have problems with tiredness, brain fog and breathing – there’s a crackling in my lungs that’s pretty scary – and if I go out with friends in the evenings, I’m destroyed for the next few days: my tonsillitis will come back, probably a chest infection and I’ll have days of really severe brain fog.

It’s frustrating – so much of student life revolves around the nightlife – but I can’t risk getting behind in my studies, which I’ve worked hard to keep up with despite my long Covid.

On the upside, not being able to go out in the evening means I now see my friends during the day and we talk a lot more. I’d say I’m closer to my friends as a result of this change of socialising style, and that’s a positive: I sat in a coffee shop for three hours the other day with a friend, just talking. I’m also far more health-conscious than I was before getting long Covid. I always went to the gym but now I’m super-conscious of what I eat, drink and I make sure I get as much exercise as I can manage.

I suppose that’s a positive too but in truth, this long Covid is really hard, frustrating and sad: these are supposed to be my carefree, healthy years.

Eliza Niblett, from Leicestershire, is 20 and has just started her third year studying experimental psychology at Oxford University

Eliza Niblett: ‘The stress of feeling I’m constantly on thin ice is exhausting’.
Eliza Niblett: ‘The stress of feeling I’m constantly on thin ice is exhausting’. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

One of the saddest impacts of the pandemic is that I still haven’t had my first kiss. I’ve never even been on a date. I’m a lesbian and at school that was really difficult. I thought it would become easier when I got to university but it didn’t happen because of Covid and now it seems like a big, scary thing instead of an exciting, natural step.

Even though university is finally back on track after a really difficult first year, I missed so much because of the pandemic that I don’t feel ready to be where I am. I spent my second year at uni playing catch-up, both academically and socially, but I’m still getting used to the idea of interacting with people: I’ve never gone out and got drunk; I’ve never been in a nightclub or done a pub crawl. I wanted to do that sort of thing when I first got to university but now the moment has passed and it just seems really scary to go out and lose control.

Covid mucked up lots of other things for me that I’m still affected by. I was given A-level grades based on an algorithm that the government later admitted disadvantaged state-school students like me. That algorithm downgraded the grades my teachers had estimated for me, which meant I lost my place at Oxford.

It was devastating and I decided to get the government to change their minds. I organised an open letter to the education secretary using testimonies from people who had also been affected. I spoke on local radio and TV, and lots of people sent messages of support.

Eventually, the government announced the grading U-turn and Oxford reinstated my place. But it didn’t undo how traumatising it had all been: two years on and I still constantly question what it was about me that made my tutors decide that I was the one they would reject when others who had been downgraded were still given places. The stress of feeling I’m constantly on thin ice is exhausting.

Thanks to the pandemic, I barely interacted with anyone for my entire first year at university. I tried to focus on work and not lament how rubbish my hard-won Oxford experience was turning out to be but it was hard to ignore it. There was just this emptiness and nothingness where there should have been excitement and inspiration.

Ella Thornton, 20, gave up her place at Cambridge University in 2021 after a year. She is now at the University of East Anglia studying education

The pandemic completely transformed my life for the better but it was an incredibly painful journey. The first thing Covid did was to stop me from being able to properly finish school. I was heartbroken – I loved my school. Being torn away felt like a physical pain.

Though I was heartbroken, lockdown was the first time I had had a big rest for many years. For the first time I wasn’t waking up with a racing heart, already feeling anxious. I felt like a hamster that had been able to step off the wheel. Lockdown gave me the space and peace to re-evaluate what matters to me. It healed me.

I matured a lot over that year. I realised that instead of valuing other people’s vision of success, I value a slow life, spending time with friends, not being stressed. I value being able to feel silly and young and not be worried.

It was incredible, coming to that realisation after giving up so much of my youth to achieving my ambition to get into Cambridge. I hadn’t done any partying or anything extracurricular. During that year out, I realised with great sadness how much I’d given up and that I could never get those things back.

I still went to Cambridge but I only lasted a year because, thanks to my time of peacefulness, I quickly realised it was no longer who I was and I had the courage to step away.

If I hadn’t had that Covid year to decompress, I don’t think I would have been able to break out of my paradigm. I would have stayed at Cambridge and become more and more unhappy, pushing myself to the brink. I would have been perpetually unhappy and probably turned into a hermit, doing nothing but work. It’s possible that I would have self-harmed or developed an eating disorder. I would probably have had a breakdown.

I’m now at UEA and having an amazing time. I aim for Bs not As, which means I’ve got time for friends and for me. I have the time to listen to music. I take the weekends off. I cook for myself. I am very, very happy.

Jess Paine is 22 and from Nottingham. Having completed her degree at Birmingham University, she is now in Greece, working with refugees

Jess Paine
Jess Paine: ‘The experience of giving back to the community has changed my future plans entirely’. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

The pandemic was, as weird as this sounds, incredibly positive and life-affirming for me. It led directly to me reframing my whole life and even changing the foundations of my identity. Gone are the ambitions for a high-flying career: I want to help people by being actively political.

I was loving living in Birmingham when Covid hit and we were all told we had to go home. I had to leave this amazing, massive city behind me and head back to the tiny, rural village that I thought I’d left behind me for good. I’m lucky in that I’m an incredibly optimistic person. I had been so excited to be in Birmingham but when I was sent away, I felt I was lucky to have a home to go back to and loved all the Zoom calls with the new uni friends I’d made.

We were given barely any coursework at all for the first year, so I had a lot of time to myself. Again, a lot of people might have flipped but I realised that Covid had given me the opportunity to look outside the box that I would otherwise have been stuck in. It stripped away all familiar routines and gave me all this solitary time to reflect on my life and think about what other exciting experiences I now had the opportunity to engage in. I think of it as an early midlife crisis.

I started doing lots of volunteer work during lockdown and it was a revelation to me. I found it really liberating and the experience of giving back to the community has changed my future plans entirely. Before, I’d always thought I’d go into academia but I’ve realised that my calling is in volunteering: in the human connection.

Housing and homelessness has became a big passion for me. It wasn’t something that I’d ever thought about before: there’s no homelessness in my tiny village. But going to Birmingham, I saw homeless people and that gave me food for thought. Then when Covid hit, I thought of all the people stuck in small, poor quality high-rise buildings while I was in my mum’s lovely home.

The other thing that the lockdown gave me was time to come to faith. I was already talking with a Christian student group before Covid hit and we continued the conversations over lockdown. I don’t think I would have found my way to Christ had it not been for the lockdown: I had the time to think about the bigger things. It’s something of a miracle. There, I said it! A miracle. That’s really how I feel.

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