Where to for Education during Vanuatu’s Double Disaster?

It couldn’t have come at a worse time, with the Government in caretaker mode following a general election, and coronavirus the subject of nearly every other conversation. Category Five Tropical Cyclone Harold ground its way across central and northern parts of Vanuatu on Monday 6th April, causing major damage in Luganville, South Santo, Malekula, Ambrym and Pentecost.

Badly affected are the refugees from nearby Ambae, who fled the eruption of volcano Manaro Voui in 2017. Most of their housing on neighbouring islands had been of a fairly temporary nature and was completely destroyed. Now they face rebuilding for the second time in less than three years. Local television features interviews with distraught people, some weeping, others asking “Where is the Government?”

Few weeks ago, the coronavirus, and the Government’s four billion vatu (US$32 million – 4 % of GDP) stimulus package was all anyone could talk about. Tourism, a mainstay of the formal economy has disappeared. The caretaker government closed the country’s borders and prepared the population for a virus that, should it come, would cause devastation to the country. Part of this preparation involved the declaration of a State of Emergency in which all public schools were closed.

Whilst coronavirus is still in the public eye, immediate attention is focused on the disaster in the North – primarily, how to re-establish communication and provide food and shelter to affected communities. It is unknown when affected schools will be operational again, or rebuilt in the case of those completely destroyed by the cyclone. Physical distancing and social gathering restrictions have been officially abandoned. It is therefore vital to question the Government’s approach to solving the current education and economic crisis associated with both the virus and the disaster. Are plans likely to be effective? With the ongoing pandemic, schools are speaking vaguely of ‘going online’. But how is this possible in a country where few own computers or capable mobile devices or have any access to the internet? Online education is not appropriate for the whole of Vanuatu. And how will home schooling materials be provided to students? Who will guide them in their lessons? Are there materials for parents to guide them?

A former principal of a Port Vila government school mentioned several problems: “Even if the Ministry of Education (MoET) gets materials to parents, home schooling for ni-Vanuatu students is new and it will be a challenge for them; some parents are illiterate so cannot help their children with their work. Time management at home is another challenge for both parents and students; some parents are still working, they cannot stay at home to help their children with their studies, and by nighttime, parents and children will be tired.”

Has the Government been asking for advice and consulting with the teachers’ union, parents groups, school boards, students associations and communities? So far, we are not aware of any progress. The caretaker Minister for Education announced that students wishing to be repatriated to Vanuatu during the COVID-19 pandemic will not have the opportunity to resume their studies overseas due to budgetary limitations1. The impact of this crisis on education in particular may have wide-reaching consequences across society and for the economy.

The government needs to be more inclusive, not to shut down debate. Now is the time to strengthen the Education working cluster by involving multiple and diverse stakeholders including civil society to discuss the reality of the next four, six or even 12 months. Let’s look at how others in the Asia Pacific region are dealing with the education crisis. Can we learn anything from them, or adapt their methods? Can education donor partners including New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT), Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) or UNICEF help to solve this education and economic crisis?

Despite the resumption of schools this week, as well as sports activities, restaurants and kava bars in two of Vanuatu’s provinces2, there is little doubt that lockdown will occur when the virus appears. The education system needs to be prepared for this situation, and actors need to work together now.

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