Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Poor Children Face Education Crisis in Global Pandemic

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, September 14 / 20

Zack Gross

The past week has marked the beginning of school for children and youth in Manitoba.  It is not an easy re-introduction to education in our time of pandemic.  A variety of processes are in place with younger students often returning full-time and older ones often combining in-person and on-line methodologies.  Masks are mandatory, some courses are canceled, events such as concerts, tournaments and graduations are uncertain or in changed formats.  Universities and colleges also are combining on-line where possible with in-person where necessary.

The impact of COVID-19 on education and children is clear.  Students miss their friends, even their teachers!  Parents in many cases have struggled in schooling at home, having neither the facility to teach or juggling instruction with their own jobs and family responsibilities.  Certainly, some children have thrived!  A friend told me his two children have been organized, disciplined and happy learners at home.  At the same time, in a survey I was involved in a few years ago with high school students in our province, a large majority of kids named school as their favourite place to be and most important activity in their lives.

Globally, however, as reported in a recent article by the Inter Press Service News Agency, a group of Nobel Prize Laureates warns of a huge negative impact by COVID-19 on the world’s children, particularly the poor.  As the pandemic nears one million deaths and devastates the economies of almost every country, the most vulnerable people – women and children – are being hurt the most.  Twenty percent of the world’s children live in absolute poverty, that is on less than US$2 per day.  Almost all live in countries with no real social safety net, so little or nothing is being done by their governments to alleviate their situation which is incredibly worsened by the pandemic.

Thus, literally millions of children are surviving day to day as their families can’t earn money in locked down situations.  They and their mothers are exposed to growing domestic abuse,  a phenomenon that has grown in wealthy countries as well as poor ones.  And children are at home for long periods of time without the kinds of tools, such as computers and Internet that would make continued communication and learning possible.  While two-thirds of wealthy countries have national virtual platforms for education and on-going efforts to put technology in the hands of most children, that kind of opportunity is much less available in poor countries.  Fully 188 countries, says the UN, have had to close schools at some point during the pandemic, meaning that 1.6 billion children have stopped learning.

Related to this increase in poverty, there has also been a spike in the amount of child labour, slavery, trafficking, marriage and migration after twenty years of improvement in these iniquities.  Organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children have been the leaders in improving the lot of children around the world, but they fear that the economic pressure on families and communities will put children in danger of unwanted and unsafe work, sex and relocation.  As reported in the Brandon Sun a while back, our city’s Marquis Project has been raising funds to provide the families of day-workers in Uganda’s capital Kampala with small cash amounts to help them purchase basic needs.

What it comes down to, as it often does, is that – even in a global crisis situation
  the rich will get richer or at least maintain their position, while the poor suffer and fall behind the most.  A stark example is that the wealthiest countries will be able to buy up and hoard supplies of COVID vaccines as they become available, leaving the poorest, including children, for later, if any, vaccination efforts.  Hoarding will also force prices upward, meaning poor countries may not be able to financially access vaccine, even if it is available.  Real global cooperation, instead of the current attacks by the wealthiest leaders on underfunded and under-respected international actors such as the World Health Organization (WHO), needs to happen to avoid this health and education disaster.

In our own province and country, there is uncertainty about how the school year will go.  Will we have a noticeable uptick in COVID cases two weeks into the school year?  How will we deal with outbreaks in classrooms or in schools?  We also have our own vulnerable populations and need to make sure that they have the supports they need – poorer neighbourhoods and communities, children with disabilities and diverse cultural communities. 

We can’t leave the fate of children here and around the world to chance.  The impact on our future generation locally and globally will come back to haunt us.

Zack Gross is Board Chair of
The Marquis Project, a Manitoba-based international development organization.

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