How Generation Z Is Handling Pandemic, Protests Against Racial Injustice

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Gael Fernandez, Shaquavia Straughn and Adam Morys. (Courtesy)
Gael Fernandez, Shaquavia Straughn and Adam Morys. (Courtesy)

Americans of all ages are grappling with the emergence of a deadly pandemic and a nationwide protest movement against racial injustice.

But how does Generation Z — those born after 1996 — feel about it all? Here & Now checked in with three teenagers to hear their thoughts on COVID-19, anti-racism protests and the 2020 presidential election.

Shaquavia Straughn, 20, won’t be returning to Spelman College in Atlanta for her junior year in the fall because of the coronavirus. She protested at an event organized by HBCU students in Jackson, Mississippi.

From Anaheim, California, 17-year-old Gael Fernandez co-hosts the podcast "Teenager Therapy.” He supports the Black Lives Matter movement but hasn’t attended a protest because he’s concerned about spreading the virus.

Adam Morys, 19, is a student at Notre Dame University now living at home in Pennsylvania. He says he does not support the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement and plans to vote for President Trump in November.

Interview Highlights

On living through the COVID-19 pandemic and what precautions they’re taking to stay healthy

Shaquavia Straughn: “I feel that as a young college student, being displaced was a very big disadvantage in having to maneuver with packing and going home. I think the biggest precaution I have taken is the social distance. I know many of us are overwhelmed with having to juggle our scholarly careers and our internships and trying to figure out our next steps. So I think that the most precautionary thing that you can do as a young student is to wear your mask and be safe and social distance.

“Aside from my own, I am very scared for the elderly people that I live with and the elderly community around my hometown. So I make sure that I stay safe for myself and others.”

Gael Fernandez: ”When the whole thing first started out, I was really worried more financially because I knew that a wave of unemployment was inevitable. So that was probably the biggest thing on my mind at the time. With all the data that was coming around, I definitely was more confident in my body's ability to handle the virus if I were to get it. I was definitely more worried, just that my parents would get it because they're a lot older. So that was my biggest concern. I was socially distancing the entire time and I think recently I definitely have been seeing friends now and then simply because it just seems like not less important. But, you know, there's this weird illusion that it's OK to do that now.

“I don't enjoy going in public, but there's friends that have also been quarantined the entire time and haven't seen anyone else. And, you know, I would hang out with them at their house, but we wouldn't go outside publicly.”

Adam Morys: ”When I first heard that classes were canceled, I was actually on spring break away from school. At first I was kind of worried for my own health just because of the uncertainty surrounding the virus. But as we have gotten more information, it's become pretty obvious that the burden of the virus is very lopsided toward the elderly. In my state, Pennsylvania, as of the last time I checked, there wasn't a single death of a person under the age of 24. So the risk for young people and for myself is definitely low. But I've, you know, generally still been mostly staying at home, seeing friends once in a while, playing tennis. But I haven't really been particularly active in terms of interacting with large groups.”

On COVID-19 impacting schools, and how the disease disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities

Straughn: “Spelman College has done a great job of centering their students in their decision making. Freshmen will be on campus and upperclassmen will be doing remote learning. And then in the spring, freshmen and seniors will be on campus. As a junior, I obviously will be completely remote, but I also understand the precautionary measures that Spelman is taking, seeing as African Americans are disproportionately affected and we are a campus of all Black women. So I am learning to be pretty adaptable to these circumstances.”

Fernandez: “I think we definitely are disproportionately affected. And especially I think when this whole first thing started, I was really feeling for illegal immigrants or undocumented citizens. And I was worried for them as well, because I saw everyone getting government help and I knew that they would not get any. And that's how I knew that [people of color] were going to get very affected by this virus in a way that, you know, white communities wouldn't.”

On the significance of the ongoing protests against police violence and systemic racism

Straughn: “I think that Gen Z has been very adamant on changing the status quo. We have been the generation that has had the most technological advances. We've got so much information at the palm of our hands and we're seeking the truth. So I feel that now that all of that is coming to a head with COVID and unemployment, we are learning that things do need to change. ... It's time. I believe our generation is very adamant and very persistent in making a stand and being vocal using their voice. I think that is something I genuinely enjoy and I support 100%.

“I have protested in Jackson, Mississippi. A group of HBCU students coordinated that event and I participated. It was very well organized and people were very precautionary given COVID-19 with masks and water and checkpoints. It was very organized and thoughtful.

“I would say when there has been violence inflicted upon you for centuries in different ways and different manners, when there has been an evolution from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, then it's time to get the few bad apples and start looking at the root of the problem. I feel that there has been a lot of critique to the ways that oppressed people have [cried out] about their issues. And so until there is change to the system, there will be different methods to which they should be heard. And we have seen through the inaction of politicians that maybe there needs to be some kind of radical action to bring about change, as we have seen people protesting for months on end, weeks on end. And we have seen some changes have come about, even though they're not substantial enough. We need more change.”

Fernandez: “I haven't been able to attend a protest, sadly, mostly just because of the fear of the virus spreading, obviously. But I think this year was a tipping point for the Black Lives movement, because I think Gen Z is growing up and we're getting to an age where we can finally fully understand and process the injustice that's going on in the world that exists in all parts of our lives. And I think we're ready, we're eager to want to do something about it. And we have so many ways of doing that. And the potential of virality is even greater now, which gives us even more power to change things. And I think that is what we're seeing here, is that, you know, our generation is starting to realize our own power and our own potential. So we're starting to organize and spread information and we're starting to understand the impact of information and what it can do to educate someone. So I think this resurgence of protest has definitely been the tipping point. And I don't think it's really going to slow down after this.”

Morys: “I have not been involved in the protest. I always support the right of people to peacefully assemble and to petition their government. However, I don't support the Black Lives Matter movement generally simply because I disagree both with the premise of the systemic racism in law enforcement and America more generally, as well as many of their goals, which include pretty radical left policies that won't be helpful for anyone, including the Black community.

“I do not [agree with the idea of systemic racism in law enforcement]. So what you see here is, you know, a combination of media narratives and a marketing campaign to push an idea that has good intentions, but I think the consequences of this movement will probably be pretty destructive.”

On the upcoming presidential election

Fernandez: “Sadly, I can't vote yet. But yes, I am quite eager to vote. If I were to vote, sadly I think I would have to vote for [Joe] Biden. You know, I don't support either of them. But I think having Trump in office for four more years would be extremely destructive and divisive to the country. I think it would be the wrong choice for the country. And, you know, the common argument is always Biden isn't much different, won't bring about much change. And I think that's just a very privileged way of thinking, because a lot of people that say that, it's simply because they're not personally affected by the changes that Trump has made. I mean, if we keep Trump in office for another four years, DACA might completely ... he might try to end that again, which he said he will do and he wants to do. So thinking about that and saying that I'd rather not vote at all, it would basically mean that you don't actually care that much because it's not personally affecting you, which is why I think that's who I would vote for.”

Straughn: “First, I agree with Gael about his sentiments about the elections and how it will be destructive to have Trump in office for four more years. Seeing as the things that have transpired, I also believe that Biden is kind of neck and neck with Trump as far as a candidate, as far as a human being. So I'm not 100% supportive of Biden. However, I know that four more years will be very destructive. I also believe that when you're voting for a president, you're voting in the system that actively does suppress a lot of voters. There [are] issues that will arise. So I will vote in the 2020 election and I will vote for Biden. However, I do not agree with his past policies and incentives that have hurt Black communities.”

Morys: “This will be obviously my first either presidential or a midterm election. I'll be supporting President Trump. As a conservative and a vice president of College Republicans, I support many of his policies. And I think recent events have shown that some of the dangers that will happen if Biden gets elected, especially on issues of criminal justice. In cities all across the country, you see Biden, if you look at his campaign platform, he will substantially weaken the criminal justice system at a federal level, which is really the last backstop when the state criminal justice systems seem to be coming apart as they are right now.”

On President Trump choosing not to wear a mask

Morys: ”I do not oppose his decision to do that. It's not because I'm opposed to masks wearing generally. But I also do not believe in mask wearing as sort of a universal practice. There are definitely situations where it is important. But as the president, I want to be able to see him, first of all, see his face and see strength coming out of his figure. And a lot of people have accused him of not taking this pandemic seriously or not responding quickly enough when in reality he has spent trillions in terms of funding, the stay-at-home orders and allowing people to stay at home away from the pandemic. So I think a lot of the criticism is certainly misguided. And simply the fact that he is not wearing a mask frequently is not something that I would blame him for doing.”

On the state of their mental health during the pandemic

Morys: “Initially, it was disturbing just because I had some symptoms of illness and I thought I might have had the virus. And I was worried that I might spread it to my parents. But as I improved, as I got better and also learned more about the virus, I became less anxious generally. Although being at home away from people for a long time and not interacting with people outside of the home too much has been difficult. Although, you know, I do feel like doing things like reading and music and things that I can do by myself. So it hasn't impacted me too much.”

Fernandez: “Well, I think when this whole thing first started, I was definitely fine because I try not to worry too much about it and just, you know, keep a level head toward the whole situation and just take time to process everything. Now, more than ever, I'm definitely feeling the impacts of quarantine and the social isolation and lack of contact with people. It's definitely led to some feelings of loneliness that I've been experiencing more now. So that has definitely took a hit on my mental health. It's definitely affected it. But not doing too bad, I would say.”

Straughn: “I can understand the feelings that arise from quarantine and social distancing that it's not something that is ideal. However, me and my community of friends and family have been doing a great job of keeping each other in good spirits, trying to be adaptable and do Zoom calls, Zoom dates, Netflix parties. Just trying to maneuver through this space and to learn this new normal that we're living in.”

Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 8, 2020.


Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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