How the world might change for the better after coronavirus
Sixteen-year old Catherine Enangue is getting used to having schoolwork every day.
Sitting in her parents’ living room, she takes notes intently as her teacher gives a chemistry lesson that is being broadcast on television to homes across the English-speaking regions of Cameroon.
It is unusual for Catherine, because she lives in a region where her schooling has been severely disrupted for almost two years, while separatist anglophone rebels battle the francophone government. Half a million people have been forced to flee and 2,000 killed in the fighting, and around 600,000 children have been hit by an education ban enforced by the rebels to protest injustices against English-speaking pupils.
In Buea, where she lives – declared a ‘ghost town’ by the separatists – there are no classes on Mondays, and Catherine often misses school for weeks on end because of the shutdowns. But now she is getting access to lessons every day.
“I think in the long run when there is any problem, teaching should always continue however the situation and wherever it is,” she said.
She hopes that the television lessons, broadcast by regional television and local government, continue after the pandemic ends.
That is something that many others are also fighting for across the world.
Heather Simpson, chief programme officer of global literacy organisation Room to Read, said: “I refuse to accept that we will lose a whole generation of children [as schools close globally in the pandemic]. I just refuse.”
Her organisation has swung into action with a new focus during the pandemic, working on educational radio broadcasts, television and distributing hard copies of materials to communities without digital access – for example, in India, she is hoping to include literacy worksheets in government food aid handouts.
“Even before the pandemic hit, there were 258 million children in the world out of school,” Ms Simpson said. “I do think some of these avenues of supporting distance learning potentially have the answer to reaching them.”
Her organisation was looking at which parts of their programme would continue as schools begin to re-open, to complement classroom-based learning, and believed many education programmes globally were doing the same.
Education is not the only example of an area badly hit by the pandemic. The impact of coronavirus on the world cannot be overstated: 250,000 dead, a global recession looming, and millions left unable to access basic rights, from education to food to healthcare.
But education is also an example of an area where – as the saying goes – necessity is proving to be the mother of invention in a way that could lead to longer-term change.
It is the same story in what was previously seen as the world’s most pressing challenge, climate change.
As travel and industry have ground to a near standstill, citizens in some of the world’s most polluted cities have been able to breathe easier and glimpse previously hidden sights, from the Himalayas to the coast. Carbon emissions will fall this year by more than ever before, according to the International Energy Agency. In Europe alone, the dramatic fall in emissions will likely result in 11,000 fewer deaths from air pollution, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
But will this last?
Writing in the New York Times, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, said it must.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest test the world has faced since World War II,” he wrote. “There is a natural tendency in the face of crisis to take care of one’s own first. But true leadership understands that there are times to think big and more generously. Such thinking was behind the Marshall Plan and the formation of the United Nations after World War II. This is also such a moment.”
Global development experts believe that there are three scenarios ahead of us, divided into the good, the bad, and the ugly.
In an article in the Global Policy journal, Professor David Hulme and Dr Rory Horner outline what those scenarios look like: the ugly, effectively global meltdown; the bad, a return to the world we had before, facing climate crisis and rising injustice; and the good, a world that is on a better trajectory than it was in 2019.
“The coronavirus pandemic,” they write, “could change the ‘rules of the game’, for better or worse… Moments of crisis matter. They can be a critical juncture, where actions taken now could have legacies for decades to come.”
On climate change, some governments are actively trying to ensure that actions taken now have a positive legacy, in many cases by building environmental goals into any coronavirus-related bailouts. Notably, this week, the French government told the Air France airline that its €7bn package is contingent on the company meeting strict environmental targets.
It must halve its emissions per passenger and per kilometre by 2030 and cut domestic flights.
The coronavirus crisis provides an opportunity to “reinvent our model of economic development to ensure it is more respectful of the environment,” French economy minister Bruno Le Maire told France Inter radio. The UK government, too, has earmarked funds for post-Covid-19 economic recovery to companies that will reduce carbon emissions.
And leading economists back up the policy: investments which reduce emissions are the most cost-effective way to boost economies hit by the pandemic, a study found this week.
The study, which was published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, found that projects like boosting renewable energy created more jobs and higher short-term returns.
“The Covid-19-initiated emissions reduction could be short-lived,” said Cameron Hepburn, lead author of the study. “But this report shows we can choose to build back better, keeping many of the recent improvements we’ve seen in cleaner air, returning nature and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.”
In Pakistan, out-of-work labourers have been put back to work planting billions of trees across the country. Portugal is preparing several multi-billion euro projects, including a new solar-powered hydrogen plant. Even Australia – the highest per-capita carbon emitter in the world – has invested A$300 million (£153m) to kickstart a new renewable energy project to fund research into hydrogen technology.
The good, the bad and the ugly
These are huge, top-down interventions, of course, which rely on major ideological changes across the globe.
“That’s the whole other question in terms of what will be the positive things coming out of this crisis,” Dr Horner said.
He sees it as a moment to abandon the outdated global reliance on the US as ‘leader’ – enshrined in the power distributions in organisations like the UN that were set up after the last crisis, World War II.
The US withdrawal of funding for the World Health Organization at this key moment, he argues, is a sign of the changed world. And there’s a silver lining in how other countries and organisations have stepped up to fill that void.
“We need a whole new way of coordinating the world,” he said. “Can the rest of the world come together to set up a more functioning international governance system?”
That need can be seen again in the delays to agreeing a global ceasefire called for by the UN, currently stalled by tensions between the United States and China.
Issues like this, of course, represent the caveats to all the hope for change post-pandemic. The scenario could easily become ‘the ugly’ after Covid-19, with fighting erupting globally, the climate and the world’s poorest forgotten in the race for economic recovery, and education suffering for a generation.
But many suggest that the pandemic can be a watershed moment for positive change.
Experts have argued that, because this is an unprecedented global health crisis, it is also an unprecedented global health opportunity.
As Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, chair of the board at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, told Devex: “The realisation that the economic costs of a pandemic can be huge, far surpassing investments in research and prevention, will lead to billions more dollars of investment in research, vaccines, therapeutics, and non-medical methods of prevention.
“This will mean that trillions of dollars in economic losses, loss of life, and loss of livelihoods for millions of poor people all over the world will be averted.”
The never-before-seen investment in things like the drive for a global coronavirus vaccine – and the efforts that will be involved in distributing it – could also massively benefit the battle against other vaccine-preventable childhood diseases, such as polio and diphtheria.
But it could also be the small innovations that make a big difference.
Since coronavirus first began to spread, one of the key public health messages has been that hand washing is one of the major ways to protect yourself.
This may have huge positive knock-on effects for public health on a global basis.
In Ethiopia, Save The Children has managed to reach around 60 million people – more than half of the population – with a catchy song on hand washing led by local celebrity, Rahel Getu. It is broadcast on social media, major TV networks, and through religious groups.
In other countries, vans with loudspeakers are getting the message out and some are using graffiti.
“In communities where hand washing is perhaps less common, this will hopefully become a standard part of life, which would help reduce the spread of other diseases, like diarrhoea,” Matthew Sugrue, country director for Save the Children in Ethiopia, said. He added that the charity had also distributed jerry cans with taps and soap to help improve access to facilities.
Pneumonia, the world’s biggest killer of children, is also effectively tackled by hand washing. Around 2,000 children currently die of the disease every day.
But as the children in the song put it, bouncing merrily around on camera with a brightly coloured background: “We wash our hands… We are healthy.”
In the short-term of this crisis, that is what the world is hoping for; but perhaps what these examples have shown is that, long-term, there could be the scope to hope for more.
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