COVID-19 is spreading worldwide, impacting children, educators, parents and, most seriously, vulnerable people. The pandemic has affected over 1.5 billion learners in 192 countries in the world. School closures affect over 91% of the world’s enrolled student population and teaching personnel. Most countries in Asia-Pacific have been taking measures to mitigate the spread of the virus. These mitigation measures have contributed to the slowing of economic activities, interruption of people’s daily life and livelihoods of workers, particularly of migrant and daily wage earners, and closure of schools and other education institutions.
In the Asia-Pacific region, we, education unions, quickly started addressing these challenges and continued having social dialogue with our governments, in particular with the Ministries of Education to ensure that learning is accessed and provided to all students; with the Ministries of Health to ensure that all protective guidelines and equipment are made available and distributed to schools, and the Ministries of Labour to ensure decent working conditions and wages during these challenging times. We also collaborated with relevant stakeholders and civil society organizations. For example, in Indonesia, PGRI demanded to the Government to stop mass-activities at schools, including class lessons and introduce on-line ones, asking for families and parents’ cooperation.
However, we must admit, it has not been an easy ride for most of us in the region. Countries in Asia-Pacific face very different situations. The situation dramatically changed in the PRC with very few confirmed cases by now, countries like Mongolia and Taiwan avoided lockdown as a result of the countries’ swift measures, Singapore reported the second wave of virus spike, while India registered triple digit increases in confirmed cases. This variety of situations is also visible in the education sector.
To tackle this crisis, the Education International Asia Pacific Regional Committee opened an online space to allow member organisations in the region to share information, successes and challenges on COVID-19.
Taiwan is one of the countries where the transition was the swiftest: the union, NTA, right from the beginning, took stock of the needs of teachers and students, in particular in relation to the entrance examination for intermediate high schools and the need for quarantine leave for teachers. This way, the union successfully showed its ability to develop solutions for the benefit of members and students. In Japan, the school shutdown was announced without notice on February 18 for most education levels. As a result, JTU has been negotiating with the Ministry to support schools and allow them to handle this situation in the best possible way.
We can go on about which countries had the worst, the best and the most innovative ways to tackle the challenges raised by the pandemic. However, this pandemic and the over sensationalisation by media is overshadowing some major challenges that countries in the region are facing.
To start with, we are witnessing a rise in authoritarianism whereby governments in the Philippines, Cambodia, Japan and noticeably in some Pacific island countries have invoked emergency laws giving indefinite powers and freedom to the Presidents/Prime Ministers to make unilateral decisions without consulting Parliaments or any relevant part of the government.
Apart from the economic impact of the pandemic, the education sector has been greatly impacted with the closure of schools, resulting in disruption of learning, dismissal of teachers, as well as intensified digital, rural-urban and gender divides. In addition, the teachers have been exposed to tremendous stress to adapt to new platforms, teaching methods and workloads to ensure that students are not lagging. Though the governments’ claim to be encouraging and providing the necessary support and the use of digital tools to ensure that teaching and learning are not affected, in most of the countries here in the Asia-Pacific, the public education system has poor infrastructures, the teachers and students have insufficient access to online platforms, teachers have not been adequately trained in the use of technology, and students - particularly in the rural areas - do not have access to internet in most cases and to computers to some extent.
Another worrying trend that is being reported is that the contract teachers, teachers in private schools, and the ECE sector in several countries - the Philippines, Nepal and Sri Lanka to name but a few - are either losing their jobs or left with unpaid salaries.
This crisis forces us to rethink the way we live because life will not be the same after this pandemic and business as usual will not be sufficient for this new world order. We need to address not only the educational issues but also comprehensive ones including health, economy and environment as correlative sectors.
I would like to call on our brothers and sisters in Asia-Pacific and around the world to stand together, united and in solidarity and united, to weather the storm that are to be brought to the education sector once the “urgency” and “emergency” of the pandemic fades away. This crisis could also be our chance to achieve SDGs, to which education is crucial. But for this to happen, we have to show our solidarity, so that peace, human rights, a safe environment and mutual cooperation is ensured to all on this planet.