As doctors and nurses struggle to cope with the impacts of SARS-CoV-2, scientists are racing to develop a vaccine that will stop the virus in its tracks and prevent further harm to people's health and livelihoods. Their efforts are a striking testament to the power of education. In this moment of crisis, our collective well-being depends on our ability to outsmart the virus.
I was struck by the central role played by education in this global public health emergency while speaking earlier this spring with children and youth in Florida and in Debre Tabor and Debre Markos, in Ethiopia. Although the kids I spoke to live in markedly different societies, the threat posed by the coronavirus and its impact on their education are something they all have in common.
Indeed, their future depends on the virus not only being defeated but on the global community making sure it has the tools it needs to prevent the next pandemic. And that means we must invest in the education that children, all over the world, need and so desperately desire.
Seeing the Children
Early on in this pandemic, I started to worry that the concerns of children and youth — who, even in the best of times, often are unseen — might fade into invisibility as the world focused its attention elsewhere. But while the United Nations and World Health Organization both have said that children are less likely to contract COVID-19 than their parents or grandparents, their education, nutrition, safety, and health increasingly are being put at risk by the crisis.
In Ethiopia, I spoke with sixteen-year-old Abeba, who has dreams of being a doctor, and eighteen-year-old Fassil, who has not let blindness deter him from pursuing his dream of becoming a lawyer. Naturally, COVID-19 is uppermost in their minds, not least because their schools have been closed for the rest of the year. When I asked them what made them feel safe and happy, both mentioned learning and school, and both told me that they viewed their teachers as an important part of their support system. Abeba is lucky to have a family to lean on, although her mother's small restaurant has been closed by the pandemic, leaving the family in a precarious financial situation. Fassil lives alone, and without school to go to he is increasingly isolated. Although the Ethiopian government has promised to disseminate primary and secondary school instruction via radio and television, many households in Ethiopia, including Fassil’s, do not have access to either. For now, Abeba's and Fassil's lives are on hold.
This is a global problem. According to UNESCO, a hundred and ninety-one countries have implemented nationwide school closures, and several other countries — including the United States — have localized closures. Globally, 90 percent of students — 1.58 billion learners — are today out of school because of the pandemic. As the lockdowns continue, concerns about the educational progress of this generation are mounting. "How can we make up for the loss of learning?" Abeba's mother asked during our call.
In Florida, I spoke with Lesley, an articulate and ambitious fourteen-year-old. She learned quite a lot about COVID-19 in school and worries about its impact on her community. While she is participating in her school's distance-learning efforts, she misses in-person classes and being able to see her friends every day. Lesley lives in the SOS Children's Village in Florida, and what I found most heartening about our conversation was her appreciation for the SOS foster family that supports her and gives her the strength to persevere during this uncertain and anxious time. Looking back on these conversation, I am moved by how tightly education and family are linked in the words and experiences of these teenagers, who lead very different lives, half a world apart.
Looking Beyond COVID-19
In listening to these young people talk about their lives, I also was struck by how far we have progressed, as a global society, over the last few decades. The UN Millennial Development Goals, developed in 2000, once seemed utopian, but advances in standards of living, literacy, and other measures associated with those goals are today widely taken for granted. Primary-school enrollment in the developing world, for instance, has risen to 91 percent. Vulnerable children like Abeba, Fassil, and Lesley increasingly are receiving the education and support they need to become professionals and have a positive impact on their communities and the wider world around them.
Looking at all the progress we've made, I know this: we cannot afford to go backward.
But with the International Monetary Fund forecasting a 3 percent decline in global growth for the year ahead — a decline that would rival any see during the worst years of the Great Depression — and with schools shuttered for the foreseeable future, will our progress be derailed? In the U.S., one study found that it took two entire years for students in New Orleans impacted by Hurricane Katrina to fully recover their lost learning.
If support for education and families is cut back during this crisis, we will forfeit the intellectual capital needed to ensure that any recovery from the crisis is sustainable — capital that also underpins our ability to anticipate and prevent future pandemics.
As we struggle to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2, we need to simultaneously address pressing needs that existed pre-pandemic and lay the groundwork for the post-pandemic world that will emerge from crisis. That means making smart investments in the world's children and youth so that they can contribute fully to the resilience, adaptability, and future flourishing of their communities.
More concretely, it means:
- Providing more and better preventive care for families and keeping children safe, healthy, educated, and fed.
- Making sure that all children and youth are able to continue their education, whether through remote learning or other locally appropriate solutions, while schools are closed.
- Delivering skills training opportunities for youth that prepare them to be self-sufficient as local economies restart.
It is too early to say what the social, economic, and psychological damage caused by this pandemic will be. What we do know is that children and youth are integral to a full recovery from this once-in-a-century crisis, and that the knowledge, skills, and fortitude they develop over the next year or three will serve them well when, as adults, they will be the ones expected to mount an effective response to the next pandemic.
Neil Ghosh (@neilghosh4) is president and chief executive officer of SOS Children’s Villages USA and founder of the Global Youth Initiative and SNV USA. An advocate of disruptive integration, Ghosh spends much of his time focused on advancing nimble cross-sectoral collaboration in support of sustainable development.