The U.N. Secretary-General warned Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic has caused the largest disruption to education in history and risks creating a “generational catastrophe” if governments do not make education a priority.
“Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress and exacerbate entrenched inequalities,” António Guterres said in a video message.
Before the virus began multiplying across the globe, more than 250 million school-age children were out of school. That number soared to over a billion by mid-July, as 160 countries closed schools in a bid to slow the virus’s spread.
Children and babies have developed COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but many have no symptoms. Those that do get ill tend to have more mild symptoms and do not require hospitalization. However, there have been some fatalities. Scientists also caution that children can transmit the virus to adults.
But as children stay home from school in massive numbers, the United Nations warns that the economic impact of the pandemic could mean that almost 24 million young people may drop out or not have access to school next year.
“We are at a defining moment for the world’s children and young people,” Guterres said. “The decisions that governments and partners take now will have lasting impact on hundreds of millions of young people, and on the development prospects of countries for decades to come.”
He urged governments to prioritize education funding in COVID-19 recovery plans, as well as to target those most at risk of losing out on education, including young girls, the disabled, minority groups and persons in emergency situations, such as refugees.
“Once local transmission of COVID-19 is under control, getting students back into schools and learning institutions as safely as possible must be a top priority,” the U.N. chief said. “It will be essential to balance health risks against risks to children’s education and protection, and to factor in the impact on women’s labor force participation.”
Guterres urged governments to seize the opportunity that the pandemic has presented to reimagine education and build it back in a forward-looking manner, including investing in digital infrastructure.
“As the world faces unsustainable levels of inequality, we need education — the great equalizer — more than ever,” he said. “We must take bold steps now to create inclusive, resilient, quality education systems fit for the future.”
To that end, an international coalition that includes U.N. agencies, NGOs dedicated to children and education, as well international and regional financial institutions, are launching a “Save our Future” campaign. It aims to harness momentum and political will for education as a critical component of pandemic recovery.