First documented in China in late 2019, COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease that quickly left its initial enclaves, developing into a pandemic and a severe health crisis. As of mid-March 2022, almost 460 Million infections have been recorded globally, resulting in more than 6 million deaths. Most states have resorted to drastic measures to curb the virus’s spread, including national curfews, general confinement of the population and suspension of nonessential economic activities (Kapitsinis, 2021). However, these interventions have caused severe economic and social hardship, stripping millions of people of their social networks and contributing to extensive layoffs. As entire economies grinded to a halt, OECD (2021) documented that unemployment in 2020 was 6.5% as opposed to 5.5% in 2019. The EU, to mitigate the looming recession, has implemented a policy of “injections” of liquidity with support measures for workers and businesses. However, in spite of estimates predicting that employment rates will return to 2019 levels within 2023, the overall impact of the pandemic is still unclear. Certain aspects are particularly worrying, such as the pandemic’s impact on young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEETs in short).
Previous EEA and Norway Grants-funded projects have studied the spread of the pandemic: data from the “e-ResLab Aegean” Observatory, a spinoff of the YOUTHShare project, verify that the spread followed global economic ‘pipelines’ (Adler et al., 2021). As such, metropolises were exposed to the virus before peripheral regions, with spikes of infections being located in areas that are permeated by flows of finance, commodities, and people. In 2020, a notable cluster in the Mediterranean EU extended from north-eastern Spain to northern Italy, passing through south-eastern France. As becomes evident, geographical proximity played a key role in contagion patterns, as the aforementioned cluster forms a continuous, “banana-shaped” zone. However, over time new spikes expanded this cluster and contagion eventually covered most South EU regions. In this expansion, a variety of factors weighed in. For instance, the policies implemented by regional and national governmental bodies, the preparedness of health systems and vaccination coverage rates, a region’s position within wider production networks, its demographic and geographic characteristics, etc. The above reveal that pandemics constitute complex socio-spatial phenomena of extremely uneven dynamic, a fact that is also reflected in mortality rates. In total, up to mid-March of 2022 the eight countries of the area (Portugal, Spain, France, Malta, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Cyprus) have recorded more than 55 million cases and 460 thousand deaths from COVID-19.
But while the above gruesome figures refer mainly to older, often unvaccinated, people, the socio-economic impact of the pandemic seems to ‘favour’ the younger ones. For the latter, labour market conditions have become significantly worse. In particular, the share of those who are out of work, education, and training has increased; and this comes in addition to precarious labour arrangements such as non-voluntary part-time and temporary employment. Map 1, which shows changes in NEET rates between 2019-20, reveals that these vulnerable individuals multiplied in a wide variety of regions, including those over-dependent on tourism (e.g., South Aegean in Greece and the Balearic Islands in Spain), as well as regions lagging behind economically (e.g., Bretagne in France, Eastern Macedonia and Thrace in Greece).
Map 1: Annual change of NEETs, 2019-2020
The pandemic found the Mediterranean part of the EU in a particularly vulnerable state, well into the tenth year of an economic crisis, and new recessionary tendencies culminating. As such, the health crisis caused by COVID-19 was combined with, and reinforced the existing economic recession (Leach et al. 2021). At the same time, most measures that were taken to support employment have been extremely short-sighted and implemented in a geographically insensitive way (ESPON, 2020). As a result, Mediterranean EU countriesstruggle more than those of the EU core, whilst within them, some population segments (e.g., women, the youth, and immigrants) struggle more than the rest. Under the shadow of a multifaceted crisis, it will take a great effort to revert the strong tendencies of polarisation (Stevano et al. 2021). Ultimately, the lessons learned during the current pandemic might prove even more invaluable, considering the increasing frequency of health crises within a context of deteriorating human-nature relations (WHO, 2018).
The above analysis takes on a particular significance within the current conjuncture as another crisis, this time stemming from the geopolitical destabilisation in Ukraine, has caused severe inflation pressures on food and energy that (once again) affect the most vulnerable.
The Cowork4YOUTH project aims precisely to support these most vulnerable members of our society, directly targeting NEETs between the ages of 25-29, with a particular emphasis on young mothers and the long-term unemployed. The project aims to increase knowledge on the impact of existing policies and offer policy suggestions to enhance youth employment opportunities in less developed EEA regions, while taking a regional perspective. After all, the need to take into account regional particularities and apply more dynamic policy interventions in guiding local productive structures into a transition that will last out the pandemic, is already recognised in the literature (Herod et al., 2022). To this end, Cowork4YOUTH will examine the target groups’ employability prospects through alternative economic sectors; it will culminate in a set of policy recommendations to enhance youth employment opportunities in less developed EEA regions.
After all, the European Year of Youth reminds and motivates us to:honour and support the generationthat has sacrificed the most during the pandemic; to encourage all young people,especially those with fewer opportunities; to promoteopportunities provided by EU policies for young people; to draw inspiration from the actions, vision and insights of young people. These are precisely the aims of Cowork4YOUTH!
Kostas Gourzis, University Research Institute of Urban Environment and Human Resources
List of References
Adler, P., Florida, R., & Hartt, M. (2020). Mega regions and pandemics. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, 111(3), 465-481.
ESPON. 2020. Geography of COVID-19 outbreak and first policy answers in European regions and cities.Luxembourg. Accessed at https://www.espon.eu/geocov
Herod, A., Gialis, S., Psifis, S., Gourzis, K., & Mavroudeas, S. (2022). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon employment and inequality in the Mediterranean EU: An early look from a Labour Geography perspective. European Urban and Regional Studies, 29(1), 3-20.
Kapitsinis, N. (2020). The underlying factors of the COVID‐19 spatially uneven spread. Initial evidence from regions in nine EU countries. Regional Science Policy & Practice, 12(6), 1027-1045.
Leach, M., MacGregor, H., Scoones, I., & Wilkinson, A. (2021). Post-pandemic transformations: How and why COVID-19 requires us to rethink development. World Development, 138, 105233.
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Stevano, S., Franz, T., Dafermos, Y., & Van Waeyenberge, E. (2021). COVID-19 and crises of capitalism: intensifying inequalities and global responses. Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue canadienne d’études du développement, 42(1-2), 1-17.
WHO. 2018. Managing epidemics: key facts about major deadly diseases. Report. Accessed at https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/272442.
Our World in Data. Accessed at https://github.com/owid/covid-19-data/tree/master/public/data