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How can schools open up again safely? The UN has some new guidelines

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As countries grapple with severe disruptions to education caused by COVID-19, several UN agencies – as part of the Global Education Coalition – issued new guidelines on Thursday to help Governments make decisions on safely reopening schools for the world’s 1.3 billion students affected by ongoing closures.

Launched in March by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP) and World Bank, the Coalition works to foster inclusive learning opportunities.

“Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labour and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school”, said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Unless we prioritize the reopening of schools – when it is safe to do so – we will likely see a devastating reversal in education gains.”

Indeed, the adverse effects of school closures on children’s safety and learning are well documented.

Millions rely on schools for food

In the poorest countries, children often rely on schools for their only meal of the day. David Beasley, World Food Programme Executive Director explained that with many schools now closed, 370 million children are missing out on these meals, as well as the health support they normally receive. “When schools reopen, it is critical that these meal programmes and health services are restored,” he said.

The agencies are urging Governments to assess the benefits of classroom-based instruction compared to remote learning, and risk factors related to reopening of schools. In those calculations, they note the inconclusive evidence around the infection risks related to school attendance.

While far from straightforward, the decision of when and how to reopen schools should be a priority. “Once there is a green light on the health front, a whole set of measures will need to be in place to ensure that no student is left behind”, said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

Right to education

The guidelines provide all-round advice for Governments and partners to facilitate reopening, she said. “We share one goal: to protect and advance the right to education for every learner.”

In terms of policy, the guidelines recommend having clear directives in place for school opening and closure during public health emergencies. Expanding equitable access for marginalized and out-of-school children is also important, as are efforts to standardize remote learning practices.

They also recommend addressing the impact of COVID-19 on education and investing in education systems to stimulate recovery and resilience.

Soap and water

In the area of safety, they advise ensuring conditions are in place to reduce disease transmission and promote healthy behaviour. This includes access to soap and clean water for safe handwashing and protocols on social distancing.

Practices that compensate for lost instructional time, strengthen teaching methods that work, and build on hybrid learning models are also covered, as are ways to ensure students’ wellness and protection, including through the provision of essential school-based services such as healthcare.

Focus on ending marginalization

Throughout, the guidelines prioritize the most marginalized. They cover how to expand school opening policies and practices to those who are often excluded –particularly displaced and migrant children – by making critical communications available in relevant languages and accessible formats.

“Once schools begin to reopen, the priority becomes reintegrating students into school settings safely and in ways that allow learning to pick up again”, said Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education.

“To manage re-openings, schools will need to be logistically prepared with the teaching workforce ready”, he said. That includes plans specifically to support learning recovery of the most disadvantaged students.

In the end, schools must look at how they can “reopen better”. The agencies say the best interests of children and overall public health considerations – based on an assessment of associated benefits and risks to education, public health and socioeconomic factors – must be central to these decisions.

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ADB Study Maps Supply Chains for Key Products in COVID-19 Response

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The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has released a landmark study which maps supply chains for critical products in the global response to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, clearing the way for the identification and removal of blockages in their production and distribution.

The interactive maps will enable banks, investors, governments, and healthcare professionals to pinpoint key companies in the supply of portable ventilators, N95 respirators, face shields, goggles, aprons, surgical masks, and gowns. The maps consider the elements of each product down to its component metals and fabrics.

“To fix any supply chain problems, we need an in-depth description of what goes into these products and which companies are involved,” said ADB’s Head of Trade and Supply Chain Finance Steven Beck. “Mapping these supply chains means that if help is needed, banks, investors, and governments can use the data to quickly relieve bottlenecks and ramp up supplies.”

The mapping project feeds data that already exists from many sources into an algorithm that sorts the information by applying various industry and product codes. Until now, that data has existed in multiple forms on a variety of separate databases, but never brought together in a user-friendly format. A future phase of this initiative will look at blockages at ports, tariff requirements, and other impediments to the efficient functioning of supply chains for these critical goods.

ADB announced on 13 April a tripling in the size of its response to the pandemic to $20 billion. The package expands on the $6.5 billion initial response announced on 18 March, adding $13.5 billion in resources to help ADB’s developing member countries counter the severe macroeconomic and health impacts caused by COVID-19.

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Human Rights

More ‘can and must be done’ to eradicate caste-based discrimination in Nepal

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People walk down a street of shops in Kathmandu, Nepal. (file) photo World Bank/Peter Kapuscinski

Shocked over the killing last weekend of five men in Nepal, who had planned to escort home one of their girlfriends from a higher caste, the UN human rights chief on Friday stressed that ending caste-based discrimination is “fundamental” to the overall sustainable development vision of leaving no one behind.

“It is distressing that caste-based prejudices remain deeply entrenched in our world in the 21st century, and I am filled with sadness for these two young people who held high hopes of building a life together despite the obstacles presented by their accident of birth” said High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, referring to the couple at the centre of the tragedy.

Last Saturday, a 21-year-old man from the ‘untouchable’ Dalit caste, known as Nawaraj BK, and his friends, traveled some 32 km from Jajarkot district, to Western Rukum district, the home of the man’s girlfriend, who belongs to a higher social caste.

They intended to escort the young woman back to their home district, reportedly at her request, but were attacked and chased into a river. Five men, four of whom were also Dalits, were later found dead, while another is still missing.

“Caste-based discrimination remains widespread, not only in Nepal but other countries, and often leads to serious harm and, as in this case, even loss of life”, lamented Ms. Bachelet. 

Dalits under attack

Nawaraj’s case is not an isolated one.

Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, have suffered for generations of public shaming at the hands of upper-caste Hindus and continue to face widespread atrocities across the country, with any seeming attempts at upward social mobility, violently shut down.

In a similar case, disturbing reports have also emerging about a 12-year-old Dalit girl who was killed in a separate attack in the village of Devdaha, in the Rupandehi district in southern Nepal.

She is said to have been forcibly married to her alleged rapist from a dominant caste. The girl’s body was reportedly left hanging from a tree on Saturday.

The High Commissioner called for an independent investigation into the attacks, underscoring that the victims and their families have the right to justice, truth and reparations.

Searching for justice

The killings have triggered outrage in Nepal, prompting the federal Ministry of Home Affairs to establish a five-member “high-level investigation committee” to look into the incident. 

On Tuesday, police reportedly filed a complaint against 20 alleged perpetrators. 

“Despite constitutional guarantees, impunity for caste-based discrimination and violence remains high in Nepal”, according to the UN human rights office (OHCHR). 

And while the country has taken “big strides to address this scourge”, she maintained that “so much more can and must be done, to eradicate this blight on society”.

The Nepali Parliament’s Law, Justice and Human Rights Committee has asked authorities to immediately investigate two cases of gang-rape of Dalit women, as well as other caste-based cases involving murder, enforced disappearances and forced abortion.

Although Nepal is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Committee tasked with monitoring the treaty observed that despite the abolition of “untouchability” in Nepal, Dalits continue to face deep-rooted discrimination, including issues surrounding inter-caste marriages.

Discrimination at every turn

And the risks for this vulnerable caste has only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Monday, the parliamentary committee directed the Government to investigate all incidents of caste-based discrimination and violence during the coronavirus lockdown. 

Dalits in Nepal and other countries experience discrimination at every level of their daily lives, limiting their employment and educational opportunities, the places where they can collect water or worship, and their choice of who to marry, says OHCHR.

Structural barriers and discrimination force Dalits to continue low-income and dehumanizing employment, such as manual scavenging, disposing of dead animals, digging graves or making leather products.

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Myanmar: Power System Efficiency Project Brings Country Closer to Universal Electricity Access

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The World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors today approved a $350 million credit from the International Development Association (IDA) to increase the output and efficiency of power generation and improve the resilience of Myanmar’s electricity system to climate change and disasters. The Board also approved $110 million in additional financing for the Essential Health Services Access Project, implemented nationwide since 2015.

Myanmar needs to double its current installed power generation capacity over the next five to seven years to achieve universal electricity access by 2030. The Myanmar Power System Efficiency and Resilience Project will finance the upgrade to the Ywama gas-fired power plant, improving the availability and reliability of electricity services to consumers in the Yangon region. Investments in the power plant and in transmission infrastructure will free-up electricity supply in the rest of the country and will remove capacity constraints to enable more households to connect.

The project also contributes to Myanmar’s climate change mitigation and adaption commitments under the Paris Agreement. By using highly efficient technology, the project will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity produced and investments in the power network will improve the system’s preparedness against climate change and disasters.

“Myanmar has the lowest electrification rate in South East Asia with only 50 percent of households connected to the public grid. This project will help close the power supply gap in an affordable and environmentally sustainable way, thereby removing one of the key constraints to achieving Myanmar’s goal of universal electricity access by 2030,” said Mariam Sherman, World Bank Country Director for Myanmar, Cambodia and Lao PDR.

The Government of Myanmar adopted the National Electrification Plan in 2014 to achieve universal access to sustainable electricity services by 2030, drawing on World Bank analytical support provided through the National Electrification Project (NEP). To date, the NEP has delivered electricity access to 2 million people and to schools, rural health clinics and community centers by extending the public grid in over 5,000 rural villages and delivering Solar Home Systems and renewable energy mini-grids in 7,200 villages throughout the country.

Access to Quality Health Services

The additional financing for the Myanmar Essential Health Services Access Project (EHSAP), consisting of a $100 million IDA credit and a $10 million Global Financing Facility (GFF) grant, will continue to support the Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) to increase access to quality essential health services, with a focus on maternal, newborn, and child health.

Since 2015, EHSAP has supported over 12,000 primary healthcare facilities across the country, ranging from township hospitals to the sub-rural health centers, with monthly funds to improve service delivery at these critical health facilities. The project strengthens the quality of healthcare by building skills of frontline health workers. It also aims to improve the regularity and systematic approach of healthcare supervision visits and the efficiency and responsiveness of public finance through financial trainings and financial data system modernization.

The additional finance will support primary healthcare infrastructure in some of the most socio-economically disadvantaged townships so that they are fully functional for essential service delivery and to scale up activities to strengthen the health system, including pandemic preparedness and response, which will support inclusion of health service delivery for all people in Myanmar. 

“We highly appreciate the World Bank and Global Financing Facility’s additional finance for the Essential Health Services Access Project. It provides vital support in reaching the goal of our National Health Plan 2017-2021 to extend access to essential health services of good quality for all people in Myanmar,” saidUnion Minister for Health and Sports Dr. Myint Htwe.“It moreover contributes to the objective of the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan to reach universal health coverage in a pro-poor manner.”

COVID-19 Response

In the fight against COVID-19, funds under EHSAP are also being mobilized to assist capacity building and operational costs to intensify surveillance and testing activities in all states and regions, establish a functioning information and reporting system for all suspected cases, facilitate engagement with basic health staff and Ethnic Health Organizations for community surveillance, disseminate guidelines to health staff and community volunteers, and develop public Information, education and communication materials.

The World Bank has provided a $50 million loan for the Myanmar COVID-19 Emergency Response Project to help Myanmar fill a critical gap in its contingency plan to urgently increase hospital preparedness and surge capacity in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, protect health workers, and treat patients.   

This project will also receive an $8 million grant from the World Bank Group’s Global Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF). The PEF is intended to provide financial support to IDA-eligible countries in case of major multi-country disease outbreaks. The PEF grant for Myanmar will support the surge response in the health sector, with special attention on benefiting the most vulnerable groups and communities in conflict- affected areas and ethnic health providers.

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