COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean: How the current crisis reveals our inequalities and demands the strengthening of public systems

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in education are unprecedented, and there has never been such a massive disruption of classes around the world. Globally (according to UNESCO data from April 28), nearly 1.3 billion students from 186 countries were affected by the closure of schools as a result of the disease, which represents almost 74% of the total number of enrolled students. In Latin America and the Caribbean, at least 40 States suspended face-to-face classes and decreed quarantine as a preventive measure.

For millions of children, adolescents and young people in the region, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability, the closure of schools implies the temporary loss of a fundamental safety net, which goes beyond the enjoyment of the right to education and includes nutrition, protection, health and emotional support. Given this context, the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE) expressed in their public position statement their concern on the impact of the pandemic in terms of deepening the historical inequalities that distinguish our continent.

Students, especially those coming from low-income families, count on school canteens to access a daily and healthy source of food, which requires the implementation of food security policies and flexible forms of food distribution to the families of students that need it, as well as other mechanisms to attend to the needs of those who depend on school feeding programs. There are countries like Argentina that have placed great emphasis on ensuring that these school feeding programs continue. Many others fail to provide quick solutions to this issue, but it’s become very evident how schools and educational spaces are also important areas where we should demand the realization of the right to food and food security.

As a result of the current pandemic, it was also revealed that the school functions, in many cases, as a space of protection against domestic violence and sexual abuse. Feminist and women’s movements in the region even call to attention how, unfortunately, feminicide increased in the context of the crisis. Being aware that the school is a space of protection and realization of other rights is very important. These are elements that reinforce the importance of intersectoriality in public policies.

Socioeconomic inequalities and ethnic-racial, geographic and gender-based discriminations, among others that have historically characterized our region, are more visible in the current crisis. In this sense, it’s evident the need to guarantee policies addressing social protection, financial support and medical care for people in contexts of social and economic vulnerability, as well as for those who are most affected due to their gender, or volatile employment situation, migrant or refugee status, disability, advanced age, residence in remote areas, conflict situations, or other conditions contributing towards stigmatization and social discrimination.

Online education as the only answer: Risks of deepening inequalities

Many girls, boys and adolescents who come from families with few financial resources or who live in rural areas, a large part of these being indigenous or Afro-descendant people in our region, do not have access to the proper resources that allow them to access distance learning, especially computers and Internet. Therefore this requires putting in place initiatives that can in fact reach equitably the students of a given context. This requires going beyond initiatives that depend on computers and the Internet, as different organizations and governments are already recommending and carrying out. It is important to develop a plurality of initiatives to maintain processes of teaching and learning throughout the period of school closures, and to think of ways to do it in dialogue with teachers, and including tools that do not require technology, like the radio, TV, printed materials, as well as the Internet, as long as it is available to all in certain contexts. Basically, the strategy must be relevant, sensitive to its environment and to its language, reach students equally, and be sensitive to the reality of families, including the time required for support and the type of infrastructure required for the initiative.

Furthermore, there are concerns regarding the privacy and data protection of girls, boys, adolescents and citizens in general, since companies and platforms that offer distance learning tools to schools often find a hidden source of profit through the use of personal data of its users. Unfortunately, the threat of so-called “disaster capitalism” (Naomi Klein’s term) is ever present, and many for-profit technology and education companies find in the current crisis a so-called “window of opportunity” to sell their apps and material and resource packs to national governments, states and municipalities in various countries.

Likewise, it is crucial to recognize that any distance learning mechanism can never or should never replace face-to-face learning, considering the interaction and socialization between people which face-to-face encounters imply. These are fundamental elements for the full realization and enjoyment of the right to education.

Historical decline of public health and education systems and other rights

The pandemic highlighted the dramatic consequences of the precariousness of public services that so many governments had been maintaining in Latin America and the Caribbean without giving any reflection, and the urgency of reversing this scenario. In this sense, the right to education and health are at greater risk, especially in those contexts where these rights were already being devalued and underfunded, for example, the catastrophic situation which just occurred in Guayaquil, Ecuador. The pandemic also reveals that human rights should be carried out jointly: for the right to education to be realized, there must also be good public health, social security, employment policies, etc.

In Peru, for example, there was a very strong recognition by the presidency that it is more urgent than ever to ensure firm, solid, and radical investments in public health, public education and other human rights. Newspaper articles are also questioning the minimal role of the State and defending the idea that the State really has to invest much more in the welfare state.

On the other hand, the massive interruption of classes puts great pressure on the daily lives of families, especially on the most vulnerable, who often go through a period of greater job insecurity or unemployment, and especially puts more pressure on women, who are going through triple grueling work days. Education workers, unions, and educator networks demand that States ensure the continuity of their remuneration and the necessary support throughout the period of the pandemic.

In this sense, it is essential to strengthen support, valuation, training, and remuneration measures for education professionals, as well as to adopt affirmative action measures, such as emergency basic income programs for people with lower incomes and in situations of social vulnerability and unemployment. It’s also necessary to ensure the suspension of charges for basic services like water, electricity, gas, telecommunications, and the Internet, among other measures.

We are living in a time of crisis, which requires the strengthening of States as guarantors of rights and the creation of a package of intersectoral measures and public policies, since the rights to health, education and the right to live in dignity, among others, are effectively carried out when realized jointly and in a coordinated manner between the different sectors of government.

Actions from civil society and reflections on the future

As mentioned briefly, some countries in the region are making efforts to overcome and mitigate the effects of the pandemic, although many times responses take longer than expected and without involving civil society, as they should do through a consensual search of paths and solutions[1].

Through contributions and inputs received from CLADE members, guides for educational communities, authorities, and citizens in general, didactic resources, training and solidarity campaigns, analysis, public position statements, and virtual dialogues have been promoted, among other actions, which bet on collective work and thinking to ensure the protection of educational communities and their human rights.

There is no doubt that the pandemic and the closure of schools will have an impact on the realization of the right to education, in the short, medium and long term. Therefore, it is important, in the short term, to seek mechanisms of continuity of teaching and learning processes, considering that these mechanisms must seek to counteract systemic inequalities; in the medium term, it’s crucial to ensure that students manage to return to schools and provide them additional support for the process of return and reintegration into daily life; and in the long term, it’s necessary to ensure a faster and more timely response capacity against possible new crises.

In the search to find answers, it will be essential to strengthen the mobilization and cooperation efforts between civil society, governments and supranational entities, promoting the exchange of knowledge, experiences and lessons learned that support the engagement with the pandemic and its effects.

Furthermore, to protect, respect and realize the right to education in the current scenario, it is crucial that the educational community think and discuss about the implications of the current pandemic in social and environmental terms, including an increased awareness of the importance of considering the lives of others, of practicing solidarity and collective responsibility. This is because having a sense and awareness of others is also an integral part of the human right to education.

Written by:

Camilla Croso, General Coordinator of CLADE

[1] For more information on the impacts of COVID-19 on education in Latin America and the Caribbean and the responses of the governments of the region to the pandemic, as well as to find out the positions and actions from civil society, access the monitoring web pages of UNESCO’s regional officeSITEAL and CLADE.

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The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) is a civil society movement that aims to end exclusion in education. Education is a basic human right, and our mission is to make sure that governments act now to deliver the right of everyone to a free, quality, public education.