Post 406.

What is our plan?

Given that “46,770 students at both primary and secondary level” have “never logged on to portals facilitating online learning,” according to the Ministry of Education, we have to ask ourselves what the impact will be in five years and ten years when primary schoolchildren reach adolescence, and those in secondary school become young adults.

School closures have impacted children’s access to food, mental health services and recreational activities. They have left children more vulnerable to witnessing or experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse. Some children will recover, but a portion will never catch up; most likely those unable to cope with our approach to schooling and whose examination results already show low school-leaving skills.

In its August 2020 publication on Latin America and the Caribbean, “Education in a time of COVID-19,” ECLAC reports that “even before the pandemic hit, the social situation in the region was deteriorating, owing to rising rates of poverty and extreme poverty, the persistence of inequalities and growing social discontent.” Youth unemployment was high, hovering around 20 per cent in the region, and already considered to be eroding Caribbean young people’s psychological well-being, with young women experiencing higher rates of unemployment than young men.

Last year, the ILO also noted a lack of decent work opportunities combined with fair wages, social inclusion, social protection and labour rights. Young people were entering a world of insecure and informal work. The ILO warned that resulting discouragement and frustration can be linked to protests.

Think of those that happened last year in Port of Spain in relation to police brutality, but which were also combined with feelings of exclusion, joblessness, idleness and anger. Think of the fact that men who commit crimes tend to start young, including in terms of handling weapons, and consistently have literacy challenges.

In this context, the most important issue for an emerging generation is an expected increase in major gaps in educational outcomes, including for migrant children and children with disabilities. Rural children will also experience greater exclusion, and this is a group with typically high rates of primary school dropout in Victoria County and secondary school dropout in the county of Caroni.

We can expect decreased literacy rates, examination passes and certification. We can anticipate increased risk of criminal behaviour as illegal and informal livelihoods become accessible options, and we should expect higher vulnerability to conflict and violence among this generation.

For some of those children, such education gaps translate directly into risk of joining gangs, substance abuse, and incarceration for young men. They mean greater risk to sexual violence, early pregnancy, HIV and prostitution for young women. This isn’t happening to those with family and financial security or with internet and computer access, it’s happening to those children who were already most at risk because of an existing gap.

We have long known the effects of poor educational access and inclusion for children across the region. From Belize to Jamaica to Guyana, peace-building programmes all provide basic literacy and certification, life skills and conflict management, and livelihood options that offer alternatives to the illegal economy or dire, intergenerational poverty.

Missing school is correlated with higher rates of school dropout, and reduced lifetime earnings. What is ahead of us is also an impact on the national economy and GDP, which can deepen a recession and exact a long-term cost in both productivity and social cohesion.

I’m suggesting we plan now for how we are going to engage in risk prevention, treating the digital divide as an educational issue, but also an issue of peace and equality. If the global data suggests what I’ve described is a likely scenario, we can plan for five and ten years ahead, not waiting for adolescent pregnancy or crime to rise.

There’s an educational crisis that’s immediate, because tens of thousands of children have not accessed months of schooling, and have no increased capacity to do so in the near future. There are obvious remedial efforts required, and extensive support to parents which can enable them to protect and educate their children as much as those with access and privilege. It will be expensive to roll out a strategy targeting these students and their families. It will be more expensive, selfish and short-sighted not to.

We can plan now, knowing that these risks are real, and must be addressed. We are looking in the eyes of a potentially lost generation and these children are looking back at us, hoping we will commit to a solution.

Post 372.

Our societies were already defined by exclusion, inequality, and lack of sustainability prior to COVID-19.  Now, Trinidad and Tobago can no longer rely on oil and gas revenues to distribute the basic welfare provisions that kept so many from homelessness, crime, illness and starvation. We simply will not be earning what we spend.

Increased insecurity means that we will not be able to buffer ourselves against the next crisis, whether epidemiological or ecological, unless we plan our recovery as if we are already protecting ourselves from such an inevitability.

To be honest, I’ve struggled with what those options are, and their realism, and will explore them over the next weeks in this column.

On the one hand, as the Guardian Weekly noted last month, “whenever a crisis visits a given community, the fundamental reality of that community is laid bare. Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear”.

On this basis, I’ve wanted to argue that we commit to economic and social justice, which is more than welfare provision to women and the poor, as the goal around which we plan national growth. How will our economic recovery also renew the possibilities for women to carry less unequal burden for care; how will it prevent increasing distance between rich and poor; how will it include an education transformation that doesn’t leave so many alienated from learning, how will it create greater inclusion for those on the margins?

Even as we emerge from this period, we also have to keep in mind that the biggest threat to all future generations remains climate-related destruction and death. Around the world, both governments and corporations are rolling back environmental protections in the wake of a focus on the economic recovery.

I’ve wanted to call for us to not lose momentum. Climate change, like COVID-19, is a global disaster which does not respect borders or identities, and requires the very global collaboration, respect for science, speed of response and individual investment in preventing unnecessary deaths that have shaped our lives these past weeks. If we understood the climate crisis as far more lethal, we would find the funds to invest in renewable energy and low-carbon alternatives on every front, so many of which are our endless resources in the Caribbean. “We would see these kinds of emergency packages that would get people off of the fossil fuel grid and onto a clean grid right away” says May Boeve, executive director of the climate advocacy group 350.org.   

These are the big issues of social, economic and climate justice which require not just big ideas, but much bigger political will. I’ve been drawn to them, knowing as we now do that everything we consider harmful can be stopped, regardless of the impact on international travel or school exams, if we decide an emergency response is required. If we think of the injustices we were living with all along as a disaster, we could decide this was a time like no other.

On the other hand, I’ve been drawn down from thinking that every big idea is one we should be allowed to consider to focusing on the nitty-gritty of immediate protections. Corruption and mismanagement has been the major harm to our financial wealth since independence. This is why our national savings are so small – they have been stolen and wasted by our very own, leaving us less able to protect our most vulnerable or turn our economies around on our own. Enact procurement legislation so that it no longer occurs from today.

Negative growth across the region and increasing indebtedness – both individual and national –  means harder times for most, increasing hunger and hardening anger. We need hope that comes from alternatives, imagined with our broadest, most inclusive ideas of justice at their heart, quieting the cynicism we have all felt that nothing changes, at the very moment when everything absolutely can.  

Frankly, the whole society – every cook, cleaner, caterer, cashier and child carer –  should have a say in how we will survive, including on the basis of cooperative-based and solidarity economy models, such as bartering and sharing. So many development solutions can come from listening.   

From the midst of economic and emotional despair, we must therefore find on a future defined by each other’s resilience and renewal, and do so collectively and transparently. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to move beyond recovery of an older order and, instead, birth long dreamed and long overdue possibilities.