We already have a vaccine for the next pandemic

Quality education is the preemptive vaccine. We must rethink education and give children the skill sets they need to ensure our world can be sustainable for all, even as new crises arise.

June 05, 2020 by Nesmy Manigat
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5 minutes read
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Professor Amivi Kafui Tete-Benissan (left) teaches cell biology and biochemistry at the University of Lomé, in the capital of Togo.
Stephan Gladieu/World Bank

As the world awaits a vaccine for COVID-19, the spotlight has been put on the world’s health systems and scientific research. During this time, human lives are dependent upon collective and individual boundaries as well as the new social behaviors we adopt.

Now more than ever, the health and well-being of individuals and their communities depend on the type of education necessary for a comprehensive understanding of disease prevention and pathologies.

This critical moment in global history is not just a health crisis with social and economic implications. COVID-19 has put our model of civilization into question. Major issues are being obscured by our technological prowess, boundless exploitation of non-renewable fossil resources, forests and other ecosystems, leading to profound consequences on the climate and the environment.

The non-preservation of biodiversity, the destruction of ecosystems and the human invasion of animal habitats escalate the risk of zoonosis as well as new pandemics in the future.

Incheon's Declaration of 2015 confirms that education develops the skills, values and attitudes that enable citizens to lead healthy and fulfilled lives, make informed decisions, and respond to local and global challenges.

The current health crisis is not just about health

The reality is, a vaccine for the coronavirus will not be enough to mitigate this health crisis. It will also require the ability to anticipate and better manage future infectious diseases.

It is becoming increasingly evident that human health relies on a healthy planet, where collectively we begin to acquire the knowledge necessary to take appropriate action to circumvent some of the damage done; finding balance and harmony with our planet.

It starts in our homes, with our families, and most importantly in our schools, which must provide relevant information and teach the fundamental notions of sustainable development.

The international community foresaw this need when it adopted in late 2015 Sustainable Development Goal 4 for education, including target 4.7:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles…

Rethinking education for the future

While recent efforts to bring this goal into reality are encouraging, essential work remains. UNESCO underlines that “the percentage of countries adopting its principles [of sustainable development] in student assessment rose from just under 50% to almost 85%. Yet only 21% of countries reported that teaching hours dedicated to the principles were ‘fully sufficient’ ".

Education post COVID-19 should adapt curriculums and study plans at every level. This reform is about preparing future leaders, scientists, medical practitioners and informed citizens. The education of future generations requires a curriculum that emphasizes life-saving everyday skills and responsibilities.

Sharing knowledge and good practices is critical globally, as no country can succeed alone. Health and education are not mutually exclusive. Health measures cannot be implemented effectively without educating the people applying these measures.

Therefore, mandated courses should aim to train children in having the capacity to understand the complex challenges we face and adopting responsible attitudes and actions. This new direction would be proactive in emphasizing the importance of the planet's many ecosystems. This would have a profound impact on famines, sources of clean water, food, hygiene, drugs, as well as natural disasters.

Another challenge will be in the implementation of new pedagogical practices and adapting our approach to allow for the teaching of disciplines, which aims to cultivate a more responsible eco-citizen.

This interdisciplinary approach, which the traditional schools have always resisted, will have to mobilize the collective intelligence of teachers. Through their new training they will need to learn to work together and create universal themes.

This cooperation would make it possible to envision teaching philosophy, biology, chemistry, and civics in a complex, competent way, within the context of their reality.

Skill sets to better manage the next pandemics

It is premature to have a clear idea of a post COVID-19 world. Even so, the current state of affairs is evidence that the service economy supported by technology will need a more adaptable, more autonomous workforce to face the unknown nature of an almost paralyzed planet.

Today, we are seeing entire sectors, both formal and informal, forced to close overnight. Skill sets developed in the 21st century will become increasingly important during the recovery process.

This will lead to professional versatility; as some jobs disappear, others will emerge, even in the most vulnerable countries. “Learn, unlearn, relearn” is not just a slogan.

Post-COVID-19 professions will require an updated curriculum in all education systems, especially for those in developing countries.

For example, the mastery of digital tools will no longer pertain to specific professions, but of all jobs that now require some form of communication through digital means. In fact, most governments have used digital platforms extensively to conduct COVID-19 awareness and prevention campaigns.

Being multifaceted, intercultural, having synergy, and the ability to communicate in more than one language, will now more than ever become transcendental key skill sets.

Why we must invest in education and partnerships

In order for education to play its pivotal role in the formation of people equipped to adjust to the inevitable changes in our world, additional investments must be made to ensure the safety of staff and students.

The dual response of the Global Partnership for Education is proving to be the appropriate measure; setting up a platform for promoting educational innovations and a COVID-19 accelerated funding program.

Recently, some 20 education ministers recently discussed the multifaceted approaches they are implementing to allow children to continue learning. Indeed, teaching, learning, evaluating during and after COVID-19 deserves new concerted efforts from partners.

To prevent the education crisis from worsening, joint efforts are still needed to redesign and enhance the teaching profession, adjust curricula and continue to involve parents.

Regarding funding, GPE has approved US$125 million to support education in 10 countries so far, and US$7.5 million has been added to ensure countries benefit from the best learning opportunities and practices. These amounts are part of the US$500 million response from GPE for COVID-19.

Finally, this health and education crisis revealed the importance of global and local partnerships, as isolated technocratic solutions have shown their limits. The adage that "It takes a village to raise a child" has never been more true.

The involvement of teachers, parents and local education partners remains decisive in training citizens with the values and skills to fully engage in the collective progress and well-being of everyone.

This is how schools will become change agents amidst crises, contributing to the emergence of this new socially and ecologically responsible world. It is the best investment to prevent and protect from future pandemics.

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