Lockdowns Undermined the Education of Millions of Children in Africa

Sharp increases in child marriage, domestic violence and teen pregnancies have been observed during pandemic lockdowns, while school nutrition programs ceased and Western colonial habits re-emerged.

By Dr. David Bell

January 2, 2022

As the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the globe in early 2020, the risk profile of the disease was quickly defined. By March 2020 it was clear that the elderly were at considerable risk, especially those already ill, while most children suffered mild disease similar to influenza. Nearly all child deaths associated with Covid were confined to those with pre-existing severe underlying illness. Across the whole world’s population, infection fatality rates were below 3 per thousand. Yet as if in lockstep, and against this evidence, schools closed in countries across the globe—all part of an unprecedented blanket ‘lockdown’ response to a respiratory virus, in defiance of previous pandemic guidelines.

The Secretary-General of the UN noted 1.6 billion children were affected by lockdown policies by August 2020; 168 million children lost almost an entire year of schooling. Despite evidence of positive outcomes in the few countries that maintained normal school functions, fear—fueled by a relentless media campaign—overcame rational thought. 

This roll-back of childhood education persisted with particular ferocity and even greater harm in lower-income countries, including many in sub-Saharan Africa. While the Swiss-based club of wealthy beneficiaries of the pandemic, the World Economic Forum, touted the ‘benefits’ of on-line learning, less than 6% of sub-Saharan children had internet connections at home. A profitable approach for global software companies created a catastrophe for hundreds of millions of children. 

For these children, the prolonged interruption of their education has done irreparable harm. A stolen year of childhood cannot be replaced. Reduced educational achievement will entrench poverty by limiting future job opportunities, removing independence (especially for women), increasing birth rates (further exacerbating poverty) and reducing the capacity of whole countries to lift themselves out of ill-health and economic penury. This disaster is already upon us:

  • Child marriages are spiking, with millions to be added before the end of the decade;
  • Teenage pregnancies are on the rise, with an additional 60,000 recorded during a 3-month lockdown in Kenya alone;
  • Increased exposure of children to violence and abuse;
  • Loss of nutrition through the cancellation of school feeding programs;
  • A reversal of progress on reducing child labor.

In Greece, 2400 years ago, the philosopher Diogenes observed: “The foundation of any state is the education of its youth.

Why has this foundation been undermined in countries that need it most, reversing decades of hard-won progress? Let’s look at the reasons commonly given:

  • To protect children? This is frequently claimed, but with most children barely affected by the virus, closing school does not ‘protect’ them. Rather, it harms them.
  • To protect the elderly? Only 1.6% of sub-Saharan Africans are over 70 years of age—the high-risk age for Covid. Surely these elderly did not ask that their grandchildren be used as human shields?
  • To help adults manage their own fear? Perhaps.

Or perhaps there is some broader reason? Are there others, far from the African continent, who may benefit from lockdown policies?

While the UN and its child-focused entities, Unicef and UNESCO, hide behind the empty corporate mantra of ‘build back better’, their actions are increasing the gap between rich and poor, making billionaires on the back of child poverty. The advent of the first African recession in 25 years, with increasing foreign debt, risks reinforcing colonial-like structures where less-educated masses are ‘managed’ by a privileged few in the boardrooms of distant countries.

We should carefully assess those individuals and entities that pushed for lockdowns and school closures—and are now trying to impose mass vaccination on Africa’s widely immune and non-vulnerable children and youth—whilst far more dangerous diseases exacerbated by these policies are ignored. We should consider how the dice of the pandemic have fallen, and whether the dangerous game authorities are playing may have been rigged. 

Unicef’s claim that ‘No one gets out of the pandemic until we get everyone protected‘ is an appalling advocacy of the suppression of children’s rights for the benefit of others. Children are not the ones at risk, and not the cause of the pandemic. Such statements, insisting that children bear others’ burdens, tell us that these organizations do not have children’s backs.

All who claim to advocate for children must reflect on their actions over the past two years. National leaders need to decide whom they serve. And the children denied their right to education will have to find a way to rekindle their hopes from a much, much lower base. 

These children, and their countries, will need to tackle these challenges themselves. The international humanitarian community has made clear where it stands regarding African children’s futures. 

The physician and astronomer Maimonides said “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”    

An ill-intentioned re-working of Maimonides’ quote, applied to our current moment, would read as: “The fishmonger could sell more fish if others can be prevented from learning to fish for themselves“.

Article 26 of the United Nations (UN) Declaration on Human Rights states that everyone has the right to education, while the legally-enforceable ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’ expands this:

States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity”.

These noble sentiments, building on the insight of Maimonides almost 900 years ago, were fundamental principles of most societies up to 2019. They provided a source of hope to those born into low-resource, low-income communities. 

The past two years have seen these thrown to the wind and exchanged for a willingness to sacrifice children’s futures for the benefit of others—a truly astonishing reversal of cultural values.

Dr. David Bell is a public health physician based in the United States.

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Photo by Bill Wegener.