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 371.

“I’m feeling suicidal,” he said, as I inched down the window. Ziya and I looked at him, and I began to wonder about what I was exposing her to. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t wearing a mask, it was that I didn’t expect the social and economic costs of this time to appear so close so soon.

We were locked in the car on Easter Monday, waiting for my shattered phone to be fixed – the day before, I was talking with the Coalition Against Domestic Violence while hastily sweeping the house in an ill-fated example of tired working mother multi-tasking – and he now stood on the pavement signalling to me.

He had been employed in construction. There was an accident. He raised his shirt to show us, but I looked away for it was intrusive and degrading. He found out his employer had not been making his national insurance payments, and this affected his compensation.

He had come to Port of Spain, but had not been able to access any help. The police treated him like a vagrant as he walked the streets, but he wasn’t one (and, here, his voice broke by oncoming tears). He lived in Cumuto, and had no money for his four girls, all under 12 years old, and not enough money to get home. The school-feeding programme used to help, but now he didn’t know what to do. He was hungry.

He insisted he was not a vagrant, he just was unemployed. He thanked me for listening to him and for not looking down on him. He accepted money and promised to buy me a doubles when “this is all over,” when we meet again and share a meal. I thanked him for his offer, told him to speak to his local church for help to access a food card.

As he walked away, I said to Zi that his story could be true or not, but what was clear is that we should all give from whatever extra we have, especially in these weeks and months when widespread insecurity peaks. He could be an addict, but his hunger was real. We didn’t know his story, but what should stay with her is that every person has dignity, and wants that recognised as equally as everyone else.

I had been reading much about the economic and social impact of covid19 over the next year, including the effects on depression and suicide ideation, but this brief encounter made it immediate and human, and showed the inequality at its heart, to us both.

Inequality marks the boundary between those mainly worried about their health and those worried most about hunger, who think they will begin to starve before they get sick. Such inequality similarly sets apart those able to transition to online schooling and those children who will be left behind next term even more than they already are.

Inequality now divides those secure workers who retain benefits from those still fighting for them, despite being essential. Think of domestic workers still caring for the elderly despite the lockdown, and who have been struggling for decades for state commitment to ILO Convention 189, on decent work for domestic workers, even while labour leaders in Cabinet from each governing party ignored them completely.

Sanitation workers, who are among the lockdown’s heroes, have been waiting for backpay and wage increases, are managing higher risks of respiratory problems, remain exposed to hazardous waste, and over 2019 repeatedly protested decades of total disrespect. Rather than simply clapping, valuing their contribution requires our public support of their demands for workers’ rights.

We should refuse to return to business as usual when we have been given the opportunity to reset, to see each other as essential, to stop the waste of our time and money. If the machine that was running our lives can be reimagined, our society can choose solidarity and compassion, rather than insecurity, fear and inequality.

We know now that anything is possible. We can work from home and decrease traffic. We can do state business online. We can increase our investment in agriculture. We can celebrate workers. We can pivot governance around preventing unnecessary loss of even one life.

The long-term crisis is a social and economic one to be fought just as much as we are fighting for our collective health. Those who were already just making ends meet may now be on the verge of vagrancy, and are deathly afraid of the fall.