By MARTHA IRVINE AP National Writer
A young woman in California, newly vaccinated, flashes a smile and a peace sign as she poses for a prom photo with her pals. She feels strange but elated without her mask.
In Australia, a girl still clings to the fluffy border collie that her family got to comfort them in the depths of lockdown last year. Just recently, she had to shelter at home again because of a COVID-19 outbreak near her.
A boy in remote northern Canada, now a young teen, feels relief when he lifts his T-shirt sleeve for the first of two vaccine shots.
A baby-faced teen in Rwanda who wanted to be a soldier has changed his mind. The pandemic, he says, has showed him a different way to help the world.
They are among a group of young people who first spoke with The Associated Press last year, just as the pandemic started to grip the world. The AP recently checked in with them again to see how they’re doing – and how the global crisis has molded them.
They’ve missed their friends, desperately. They’ve struggled at times to stay motivated and to focus on school done in various ways from home, if access to their studies was even available. Most are still awaiting their chance to get vaccinated, but want to do so.
They are anxious and happy and frustrated and hopeful, seemingly all at once. But they say the pandemic also has given them newfound resilience and an appreciation for even little things.
“I’m realizing that … if there’s an opportunity for memory making, you have to like go for it because there could be a chance that that opportunity will disappear,” said Michaela Seah, the young woman in California.
In March 2020, Michaela was isolating in her bedroom in Palo Alto, just south of San Francisco. Sick with a fever, she stayed there for two weeks as a precaution to protect her family. It felt lonely, she said. But no one else got sick.
Little more than a year later, she walked across the stage at Palo Alto High School to receive her diploma. In early 2022, she will begin her freshman year at NYU with a semester in Paris.
“It’s a big jump,” the 18-year-old said. She’s nervous, but also excited to begin this new chapter.
The joy of rejoining the world — and especially reuniting with friends and extended family — has been a universal theme for the young participants who’ve been able to do so. “Being with them, hugging them,” Elena Maria Moretti, a 12-year-old in Rome, said. Last year, she was dancing hip hop alone in her bedroom and spraying disinfectant on packages the family received. Italy was among the first to experience huge death counts because of COVID-19.
Now wearing masks, she and her friends have been able to walk to school together and to study and visit in one another’s homes. Being separated from them – stuck in her family’s apartment for so long — was “ugly,” she said.
Not everyone is feeling so free. While cases and deaths are dropping in some parts of the world, the pandemic continues to rage in others, especially those with bigger populations and with less access to vaccines.
In New Delhi, India, young brothers Advait and Uddhav Sanweria have sheltered at home for months. This year alone, a second wave of COVID left more than 230,000 Indians dead in a four-month period.
“We thought that the entire human population will be finished,” 10-year-old Advait said in a video interview recently filmed for the AP by the boys’ parents. “And Earth will remain nothing but an empty sphere with dead bodies.”
Uddhav, 9, still fears for their family, particularly his grandparents, who’ve managed to stay well so far.
The boys, a jovial pair who wrestle together and play cricket in their living room, talked about their hope for free vaccines, even if they are too young to get them themselves. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has since announced a plan to distribute free shots, in a bid to fully vaccinate the country by end of the year.
In Brazil, where COVID cases are still surging, 16-year-old Manuela Salomão, expressed frustration with her country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose government repeatedly ignored opportunities to buy vaccines.
“The pandemic was not easy for a lot of people in Brazil. Many lost their jobs and could not socially distance because they needed to survive,” said Manuela, who lives in Sao Paolo.
“To die of hunger or of COVID? That’s still very hard.”
The pandemic has caused her to grow up more quickly, she said – to become more empathetic, to think more critically and to study even harder.
In Melbourne, Australia, Niki Jolene Berghamre-Davis, who’s 12, just finished two weeks in lockdown. She’s relied on her family and their new dog, Bailey, to keep her company and learned to play the clarinet. She says online school helped her become more independent.
Niki tries not to be annoyed by the shutdowns and Australia’s restrictions on international travel. She’s knows other countries have had it much worse – and is grateful that Australia has made it through the pandemic relatively unscathed.
“I would be really happy to spend time away,” she said, wistfully. Sweden, where her family has relatives, would be her first destination. She misses them terribly.
In some ways, life as he knew it has returned for Tresor Ndizihiwe, a 13-year-old in Kigali, Rwanda. He can play soccer with his friends again. He can now help his mother carry home food from the local markets — plantains, sweet potatoes and other staples.
But returning to school was not so easy. First, he learned how much worse COVID had been and how his mother had tried to protect him from the realities. He’d also fallen behind on his studies because he had no computer or TV to access classes during lockdown.
Tresor is determined to catch up, and also spends time helping his younger siblings practice reading. When the AP first spoke to him in April 2020, he said he wanted to be a soldier.
Now the boy, a top student in his class before the pandemic, plans to be a doctor, “so if another pandemic arises, I can help.”
He is glad that his mother, a teacher, got vaccinated. He will patiently wait for his own.
In Nunavut, a territory in far-north Canada, Owen Watson, another 13-year-old, had hoped the remoteness of his homeland would help keep everyone there safe.
Last year, he recorded a video for the AP, wearing a parka and NASA cap as he showed his closed school and playground, still with a bit of snow in late spring. For months, partly due to the occasional lockdowns and strict travel bans, the small capital city where he lives, Iqaluit, had no documented cases of Covid. That changed this April.
“It got pretty scary,” Owen said. Health officials there worried the virus would spread quickly, since Inuit communities can be more vulnerable.
Owen breathed easier when his parents got vaccinated. Then this month, still wearing the NASA cap, he got the first of two Pfizer shots, newly approved for his age group in some countries.
“I’m feeling a bit more calm now,” he said. But there’s always that underlying fear that it won’t stay that way.
That, too, was a common sentiment among the young people who spoke with the AP.
It’s not just the fear of another pandemic. For Freddie Golden, a 17-year-old in Chicago, the state of the world is overwhelming in many ways. As young Black man, for instance, he watched last year’s news about the police killings of George Floyd and others with a heavy heart.
“I want to live life in a good way, not where bad things are continuously thrown at me,” said Freddie, who’ll begin his senior year at North Lawndale College Preparatory High School. on Chicago’s West side in a few weeks.
His mom, Wilonda Cannon, watched as her son struggled emotionally last year – but also as he grew into a man, with broad, muscular shoulders and deepened voice. It was a reminder, she said, that even when life came to a halt in many ways, time marched on.
“My family, especially my mom, helped pull me through,” said Freddie, who now feels more ready to take on the world.
His big goal is to become an engineer – “to change the world with technology” — and to play basketball in college. He has his sights set on Howard University in Washington.
“I feel like for kids my age … all across the world, it’s been a tough, stressful situation,” Freddie said. “But I feel like we all can push through. We all can do it. We just got to stay the course.
“I feel like we deserve happiness.”
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