The challenges of COVID-19 in the Pacific
Battling the challenges of COVID-19, climate change, natural disasters and economic recessions is at the forefront of work being undertaken by the Council of Pacific Education (COPE) on behalf of its members in the region right now.
COPE is the regional organisation of teacher unions/organisations in the Pacific comprising of 19 affiliates from 11 countries and has been working tirelessly to support education members across the Pacific during this unprecedented time.
COPE Secretary General Govind Singh said the challenges faced by the region’s teachers and students throughout this time have been enormous.
“Border closures, lockdowns and travel restrictions have led to a huge amount of job losses for Fiji and other island nations who rely heavily on tourism for income,” Govind said.
“Families have been forced to relocate after losing their jobs and while many have moved to rural villages, there have been access issues when it comes to food and water with many local agricultural sources already wiped out by Cyclone Harold in April 2020.
Impact on education
Govind said the disruption to education and displacement of many students and their families has meant some students have missed out on schooling altogether, leaving them socially and academically disadvantaged.
“In many parts of the Pacific, we don’t have reliable IT systems or the internet, so a huge challenge when schools closed was ensuring students could access some form of learning,” Govind said.
“It was quite difficult given many people did not have access to IT systems that would enable remote learning,” he said.
Govind said while teachers had worked from home during lockdown to produce hard copy materials and worksheets for their students (whilst juggling their own family responsibilities), this was negated by the fact some students’ families had moved and were not contactable.
“So those children were deprived and did not get any school learning, despite the teachers reaching out,” Govind said.
“Many of the parents struggled to assist with schoolwork, so they were anxious and confused about the future of their children’s education.
“The workload for teachers was challenging and very exhausting because they were not used to this mode of delivery and were working from home with their own children.
“I think it was the most challenging period in the life of those teachers,” he said.
Govind said schools in Fiji had now reopened and while most had implemented new arrangements for COVID-19 prevention with handwash facilities and hygiene guidelines, in a country with a small economy, social distancing at school was near impossible.
“To attend school, students are packed into school buses and the classrooms have 45 or 50 children, so there are still concerns,” Govind said.
Supporting women members
An alarming spike in instances of gendered violence as well as family violence has also impacted women living in the Pacific during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
Govind said job losses, financial stress and crowded houses during lockdown were prime triggers for increases in domestic violence.
“Unfortunately, The Fiji Crisis Centre reported that in February 2020 they received 79 calls for assistance, but in April 2020 over 500 calls were received,” he said.
To support members, union leaders are trying to travel to regions to meet members and identify member needs.
Where possible, financial resources are being offered. COPE and Education International (EI) have also established a COVID-19 solidarity fund to provide country assistance funding to help union members battle the economic challenges arising from the pandemic.
The fund aims to help unions respond to the immediate and long-term challenges brought about by the pandemic and to support union activities to ensure the rights of education staff are respected and upheld during the crisis.
IEUA-QNT members can support the solidarity fund via www.ei-ie.org
Images courtesy of COPE.