Synopsis: COVID-19 widens inequalities even within specific sectors, like in Education. Fragile countries, and their most vulnerable populations in particular, have seen their situation deteriorate. Country and context specific solutions to the pandemic should therefore be adopted.
Keywords: inequality, education, emergencies, conflict, COVID-19
Nearing the end of 2020, if there is one term all humans are familiar with by now, it is COVID-19. At the time of writing this article, 33 327 897 million people contracted the virus, which caused 1,002,665 thousands deaths. COVID-19 has been very revealing of the disparities existing within countries. Recall the pictures relayed by all major media newspapers of the thousands of people queuing for a food basket in Geneva, Switzerland one of the most expensive cities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Look at how black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the virus in the US, accounting for 1/3rd of infections while representing 13% of the total population.
From the beginning of the global propagation of the virus, the world could realise that the ordained sanitary measures put in place to limit the spread of the virus – such as staying home, washing hands regularly, respecting social distancing – were not adapted to the realities of various countries in the Global South. A large proportion of inhabitants still live in close proximity with their neighbours or work in the informal sector, only earning a daily wage, which does not allow them to stay at home. A smaller proportion of those inhabitants have limited access to water.
The poorest countries, and especially countries in conflicts, are most worrying for the international community. As a good example, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2532 , on 1 July 2020, requesting a global ceasefire, to limit the negative outcomes of armed conflicts that would only be aggravated by the pandemic. The countries in conflict often do not have a government that can ensure the respect of measures throughout their territory. Different sectors of activity threatened by conflicts are even more at risk with the arrival of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
For example, the education sector is now facing its biggest crisis in history, with nearly 1.6 billion students that have been out-of-school for months. Here again, the different solutions found to palliate the situation, such as using online resources or technology, only exacerbated the differences between income groups. It was quickly apparent that not everyone had an internet connection, nor a computer at home, nor a smartphone to follow the lessons online. Even the ideas of dispensing classes through TV or radio, which constitutes a more accessible alternative, cannot include everyone, especially those in rural areas.
When for families in rich countries, it seemed challenging for parents to guide their children through their everyday lessons, it was even more difficult in poorer nations. In these countries, there is a higher proportion of parents who are illiterate or cannot afford to spare a few hours from their daily jobs to be home and accompany their children in their tasks. In addition, the latest data showed that there was around 19 million of displaced children last year – just to give an idea of the proportion of children who do not even have a home – which seems to be a factor excluded from mainstream solutions.
In some war countries, like in Yemen, one of the key activities of the education cluster is the establishment of school feeding programmes, which of course are now pending with COVID-19. Schools, in emergency contexts, do not only have the purpose of teaching children about specific subjects but also constitute a safe place to keep them away from other vices.
The compound effects of the pandemic are difficult to evaluate. The experience of Ebola and the increasing poverty that it generated suggests that we can only expect a higher number of children enrolling in armed groups, and more children forced into child marriages, which, among other causes, will lead to a higher number of early pregnancies.
Hence, the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies the difficulties faced by marginalised and vulnerable populations everywhere, even more so in fragile contexts. The effects on those populations can be so complex that planning and organizing more dialogues with them might be the only way to obtain an extensive understanding of the repercussions of the pandemic on different aspects of their lives. This proposed method of dealing with national or global catastrophes is not recent.
In 2013, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) had already observed, in reaction to the Post-2015 framework on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) (in that case linked to natural disasters), that the poorest and most marginalised were always the most affected by disasters due to lack of income, poor living conditions, lack of access to information and especially lack of education. They found that disasters only worsen those realities; hence, they invited governments to engage all groups, including the most marginalised ones to participate in the decision-making process for DRR. This recommendation remains poorly applied today and COVID-19 constitutes a perfect illustration. It was noticed that, in general, women were rarely involved in decision-making processes for solutions to counter-act the spread of the pandemic and, in the few countries where they were involved, they adopted more inclusive approaches that considered the effects of the virus on women and girls. It makes sense, doesn’t it? How are men supposed to delve deep into solutions for problems they are not themselves experiencing? Indeed, the countries with women leaders in the Global North were considered the best at handling the pandemic. Yet, women only represent a portion of the vulnerable populations.
If we put on our Education lens to make the point more concrete, we can see that just by focusing on this sector, we will generally find poorer nations lagging behind in terms of the level of their education systems. The countries experiencing conflicts are often lagging even further behind and, in all of those cases, the vulnerable groups are the most impacted. If we want the pandemic to not compromise any efforts that have been made in those countries to enhance their education systems and be more inclusive, there is a need for country and context specific actions to address COVID-19. Every country should be encouraged to consult grassroots organisations or civil societies representing vulnerable groups to become aware of the difficulties and realities faced by those groups. Several international organizations have been claiming the benefits of such an approach but it still cannot be seen in practice. It does not hurt to reiterate the need for such practice until we see it being applied.
This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.