The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the education of poor children, a new global survey has found: with 8 in 10 children surveyed saying they have learned little or nothing while school has been closed. Meanwhile violence at home has doubled, with the reported rate at 17% compared to 8% when the child was attending school in person.
The pandemic is also widening the gap between rich and poor according to the survey conducted by Save the Children, which was conducted with 25,000 children and caregivers across 37 countries. During the six months since the pandemic was announced, the most vulnerable children have disproportionately missed out on access to education, healthcare and food, and suffered a significant increase in violence at home. Two thirds of children have had no contact with teachers at all during lockdown, while less than 1% of poorer students interviewed had internet access for distance learning. Among households that classified themselves as non-poor, this figure was still just nineteen per cent.
Save the Children estimates that the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered the largest education emergency in history, with children who fall behind in education at greater risk of dropping out completely or falling victim to child labour and child marriage. There are concerns that in some countries, the hidden impacts of the pandemic may now outweigh the risks posed by the virus itself. It is estimated that ten million children may never return to school following this pandemic as a result of rising poverty.
The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered the largest education emergency in history
The survey also found that more than three in four households had reported an income loss since the beginning of the pandemic, with poorer families more likely to see their incomes hit (82%) than non-poor (70%). Nine in ten households that lost over half their income reporting difficulties in accessing health services. Almost two-thirds of households (62%) also found it difficult to provide their families with nutritious food.
Girls are also more heavily impacted by the pandemic than boys: 20% of girls said they had learned nothing during school closures, compared with 10% of boys. Worse still, it is estimated that the pandemic could cause thirteen million additional child marriages by 2030, and disruptions to health services could lead to a loss of access to contraception for 47 million women.
The crisis might intensify existing inequalities, jeopardising or reversing hard-won gains towards gender equality. Women and girls face specific challenges – such as gender-based violence (GBV), child marriage, and teenage pregnancy. All of these are proven to rise during and in the aftermath of pandemics, with devastating effects for women and especially for adolescent girls.
According to UNESCO, the continuing school closure will adversely impact 1.5 billion students globally and in India alone, 320 million students will be affected. Undeniably it has far reaching effects in future: from impacting GDP in the longer term to something as immediate as reversing decadal gains in school education made since independence. For the poorest citizens of India, the ones who already face the brunt of India’s massive inequalities, they are going to suffer the most from this pandemic’s lasting effects. These citizens are the migrant workers whose plight has brought us harrowing stories. But they are also the daily-wage earners, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, waiters, cooks, carpenters, and more. These families comprise 85% of India’s economy. Many of them are out of business or have lost their jobs; and they have no social safety net.
In India alone, 320 million students will be affected by school closures.
India has the world’s fastest-growing population. As much as 320 million citizens are below the age of 18 years. The reality is that India’s most privileged students – the top 10% – will experience a temporary blimp. High-income schools across the country have already mobilised networks and resources to respond with dexterity and care. Virtual classes began soon after the pandemic. Parents are tutoring children – and paying for private classes – at home. While the vast majority of the country’s youth – the four walls of a classroom are their only pathway to a better life. It is also their safe haven. For some, it is a space to seek reprieve from the chaos and abuse of life at home. The current crisis severely threatens that safety. It is also cutting off access to nutrition and basic supplies and children are losing valuable learning time which, for them, is needed to succeed. Given their lack of network connectivity and literate family members, school is their only access to effective instruction.
Some experts are predicting that India’s children will face the brunt of this lost time for years to come. Unless urgent action is taken now the long-term legacy of this crisis will be the huge numbers of children whose learning will be disrupted or cut short completely.
To get ahead of this, the government must use its leadership to bring world leaders together, make an urgent plan to get girls and boys back into education and make sure children have access to essential health services, free at the point of use. When vaccines and treatments for Covid-19 become available, they must be accessible to everyone irrespective of their ability to pay and where they live.
The world’s poorest countries need help from the IMF and World Bank to invest in their health systems and protect the most vulnerable children who are being hardest hit by the economic fallout, for example through cash transfers and social protection.