The following morning
States have an indisputable obligation to guarantee the right to education even in times of emergency and especially to ensure access to learning opportunities.
We have been asked to share some comments on the right to education in the context of the post-pandemic, so the first thing to say is that, while there is no clarity on the effectiveness of experimental treatments and vaccines, we do not give up hope that COVID-19 will never become endemic, like influenza, HIV and chickenpox. In this sense, the spaces of our certainties do not allow us to foresee how things will be the following morning and everything seems to indicate that the world can recover from this hard blow and, at the same time, that this experience should lead to new attitudes, demands and community and political purposes, which undoubtedly include the field of education.
States have an indisputable obligation to guarantee the right to education even in times of emergency and especially to ensure access to learning opportunities. COVID-19 produced a global health emergency, which in turn led to a series of concurrent crises in the economic, financial, institutional and social spheres. We saw how education systems closed their doors and, when possible, switched to non-face-to-face modalities, without having the resources and preparation to do so.
Governments have tried to ensure that their response to the pandemic is equitable, inclusive and rights-based, but this attempt has been ineffective in many countries. The impact of the pandemic threatens the entire 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including SDG 4, as school closures in 130 countries still affect nearly one billion students, further entrenching patterns of inequality and exclusion. Ensuring accessibility means establishing plans to reopen schools, as well as urgently attracting those who would be excluded, once schools resume their face-to-face functions.
From an economic viewpoint, disaster is weighing on many countries, and especially on the informal sector: an estimated two billion women workers are in the informal sector, corresponding to 61.2% of the world's employed population1, at permanent risk of vulnerability and precariousness. In fact, according to the International Labour Organisation, informality has a strong adverse impact on income adequacy, occupational safety and health and obviously also on the public budget.
Nevertheless, depending on a successful renegotiation or (less likely) cancellation of debt and a relatively short-lived COVID-19 collapse, the World Bank expects economic activity to recover slightly in the fourth quarter of 2020 and recovery to continue in 2021-20222.
A crisis within a crisis
Among these one billion students referred to above, the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting girls and boys, young women and men differently. In other words, the pandemic has not hit everyone equally, but rather made more visible the inequality, inequity and neglect of social sectors that have historically been discriminated against and excluded. In fact, some countries are facing COVID-19 as a crisis within a crisis, as the disease imposes new constraints on societies already suffering from economic fragility, war, occupation or extreme poverty.
We thus see that health care is only one dimension of the necessary responses, because policies and interventions must also be protective of human rights, especially of the poorest and most vulnerable people, including people with disabilities and those already affected by humanitarian crises. In other words, they must respond to the different needs, contextual realities and risks that people face.
Education is an enabling human right and, at the same time, is part of a social protection framework that includes the right to health, information, work and integral human safety. These rights cannot be guaranteed in isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic shows that the rate of economic growth will decrease globally and that the crisis will increase geopolitical and technological rivalry. However, projections of the social impact of the pandemic do not show key data on the terrible consequences it will have on people's lives, especially on the most vulnerable, and on patterns of poverty and inequality.
In terms of the availability of education in the post-pandemic context, governments must ensure that all economic stimulus packages are equitable, inclusive and explicitly pro-poor. It is important to note that many developing countries do not have sufficient resources to respond to the pandemic, as their health systems are weak and they also lack social safety nets and financial resources to provide a fiscal and monetary response to counter the recession. At the same time, many industrialized countries have put in place sanctions and restrictions that have negative consequences for developing countries.
There is therefore an urgent need for action, both nationally and globally, to release resources and ensure that they are targeted at countries and populations in need. Immediate solutions include debt relief and increased official development assistance (ODA).
These difficult times must not encourage the commercialisation trends and instrumentalist approaches to education, which have unfortunately increased as a result of weakened public funding, proving that the voracity of privatisation meets no limits in emergency situations.
In the dimension of acceptability and adaptability of education, there is particular concern about the risks associated with the tools and platforms used for online and distance teaching and learning, including threats to education as a public good and the safety and integrity of students and teachers. At this time, strengthening public education systems should be seen as an essential part of a more robust public response to protect the lives and dignity of individuals, including ensuring that measures taken throughout the response to COVID-19 contribute to the strengthening of the education system, not only during the crisis but also after the reopening of schools.
Civil society organizations play a key role in supporting governments during the crisis, including raising awareness of protection measures, disseminating official information, activating networks to support the most vulnerable sectors, facilitating distance education and producing resources for teaching and learning.
The Global Campaign for Education has called upon national governments and donors to prioritise education in all emergency responses with immediate effect and to include education in their COVID-19 response policies and ensure continuity of learning and the return to school for all people.
We believe that governments must ensure the continued provision of services, including the distribution of meals, protection from violence and abuse, the establishment of clear referral routes, and provide comprehensive education in sexuality as one mechanism to, among other things, reduce gender-based violence and the incidence of early and unwanted pregnancies and marriages.
The Campaign has also called on donor governments to fulfil their commitment to allocate at least 0.7% of GDP in official development aid and to ensure that aid is channelled to the sectors most in need, including education.
Low-income countries' external debt payments to all creditors must be cancelled urgently to unlock funds in developing countries' budgets, and emergency funding must not put countries at greater risk of over-indebtedness.
It is also essential that teachers be at the centre of the education response through their participation in the design and development of emergency measures, and that they be sufficiently supported and prepared to teach in safe and protective environments when schools and universities reopen, with their salaries and jobs maintained at all times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left great lessons that we must make the most of. Now more than ever we appreciate the need to promote crisis and post-crisis assessment plans to guide new forms of social and economic response, especially the role of education during and after emergencies. These plans must always be transformative of the inequitable social environment, protective of human rights, and established with deep understanding and constant socio-cultural and gender consultation.
Civil society organisations, youth-led organisations and teachers' unions have a key role to play in bringing education back to the goals set by international human rights law. This role includes the right to protest and to receive prompt answers to demands emanating from social organisations. States, for their part, have the obligation to be accountable for their obligations and to progressively advance in the realization of the right to education for all.
- Vernor Muñoz is Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns, for the Global Campaign for Education. UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education (2004-2010).
2 Banco Mundial. La economía en los tiempos del COVID-19, 12 abril de 2020.
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