Covid-19’s Devastating Impact on Asian Education

For millions of children, their education is likely to be permanently stunted

At about 1 o’clock on the sunny afternoon of January 12, the volcano at the bottom of Taal Lake 50 km south of Manila suddenly shuddered and blew up with a series of explosions that spewed ash and gases 15 km into the sky and sent a darkening plume to the northeast, covering a great swath of Luzon, the most populous island in the Philippines, with grit.

That would abruptly end classes in thousands of schools across Calabarzon, Central Luzon and Metro Manila. They would stay closed for two weeks with administrators, teachers, and parents completely unprepared to find ways to teach children. For most, there was no school whatever, with teachers and students finding it difficult to implement at-home study because of lack of training and superstructure.

That of course was an ominous dress rehearsal for the events that would transpire a few weeks later on March 14, when schools closed for good because of the onset of the Covid-19 coronavirus, leaving 25 million Filipino students up to the university level out of school indefinitely.

While in more prosperous countries new methods of teaching via Zoom and other video sharing software went into effect, education for children across South and Southeast Asia if not the world came to a stop as the virus emptied out schools, closing them into the summer holidays. Thus hundreds of millions of children are the main sufferers from a pandemic that ironically, unlike tuberculosis, malaria, and others, barely affects them.

Decades of progress in children’s health and education risk being wiped out. Yet, according to a March 2020 report by Unicef, the UN children’s agency, “As this is a new virus, we are still learning about how it affects children. We know it is possible for people of any age to be infected with the virus, but so far there are relatively few cases of Covid-19 reported among children.”

Nonetheless, schools remain closed up to and including the university level, some for longer than others. On May 27, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said the country has decided to extend its schools' closure until the next academic year that starts in November. Vietnam, which has arguably done the best job in the region of containing the virus, is opening its schools in phases as educators struggle with online education for poverty-stricken students, many of whom have no phones or other electronic gear capable of receiving learning materials.

In Indonesia, public schools will gradually open in July but only in so-called “green zones” of low Covid-19 risk. At the initial stages, only schools at the junior high school level and above will be opened. But if a positive case is found in the school, it will be closed again. With Indonesian cases now totaling nearly 50,000 – Southeast Asia’s highest – and rising at a rate of at least 1,000 per night, the green zones are obviously at risk.

The Philippines is tentatively working to get its children back into school in August, but that is uncertain. In a speech aired in April, President Rodrigo Duterte said the risk was too great, even if it holds students back academically.

"Unless I am sure that they are really safe it's useless to be talking about opening of classes," the president said. "For me, vaccine first. If the vaccine is already there, then it's okay," he added. "If no one graduates, then so be it."

“It’s okay, just let them play,” he said. Duterte’s education secretary, Leonor Briones – herself a Covid-19 survivor at age 78 – said the department is seeking to lay the groundwork for a different kind of learning using technology including radio, television, online classes, and modular learning. But the campaign to get an already-substandard education system online is problematic at best.  The Singapore-based International Institute for Management Development (IMD) recently released the results of its survey on the talent competitiveness of 63 countries from around the world. Based on the rankings, the Philippines ranks a lowly 49th. 

Unicef, in another new report issued on June 25, said the pandemic is unraveling decades of health, education and other advances for children across South Asia particularly, an area that contains a quarter of the world’s population, much of it desperately poor, and insisting that governments take urgent action to prevent millions of families from slipping back into poverty.

The report describes the disastrous immediate and longer-term consequences that the virus and the measures to curb it have had on 600 million children and the services they depend on.

“The side-effects of the pandemic across South Asia, including the lockdown and other measures, have been damaging for children in numerous ways,” said Jean Gough, Unicef regional director for South Asia. “But the longer-term impact of the economic crisis on children will be on a different scale entirely. Without urgent action now, Covid-19 could destroy the hopes and futures of an entire generation.”

According to the report, immunization, nutrition, and other vital health services have been severely disrupted, potentially threatening the lives of up to 459,000 children and mothers over the next six months. Food insecurity is growing: A Unicef survey in Sri Lanka showed that 30 percent of families have reduced their food consumption. In Bangladesh, some of the poorest families are unable to afford three meals a day.

“With schools closed, more than 430 million children have had to rely on remote learning which has only partially filled the gap; many households – especially in rural areas – have no electricity, let alone internet access,” the report said. “There are concerns that some disadvantaged students may join the nearly 32 million children who were already out of school before Covid-19 struck.”

Phone helplines are reporting a surge in calls from children suffering violence and abuse during confinement at home. Some children are struggling with depression, even resulting in attempts at suicide.

The report also notes that vaccination campaigns against measles, polio, and other diseases must resume, as should work to help the estimated 7.7 million children who suffer from severe wasting -- more than half the global total. Dengue fever, for instance, has regained a toehold even in Singapore.

The economic turmoil is hitting families hard. Large-scale job losses and wage cuts have coincided with the loss of remittances from overseas workers and from tourism.

Unicef projections show that over the coming six months as many as 120 million more children could be pushed into poverty and food insecurity, joining some 240 million children already classified as poor.  In order to mitigate the impact on poorer families, the report says that Governments should immediately direct more resources towards social protection schemes, including emergency universal child benefits and school feeding programs.

“Putting such measures in place now will help the countries of South Asia transition faster from the humanitarian crisis caused by Covid-19 to a resilient and sustainable development model, with long term benefits for child wellbeing, the economy, and social cohesion,” said Gough.

Among those urgent measures are scaling up low-tech learning solutions such s combining paper and phone-based materials, especially for girls, children living in remote areas and urban slums, and children with disabilities. There are other longstanding issues including the need for potable water, toilets, and hygiene services in schools and health care facilities.