Members of the Education and Solidarity Network (ESN), including healthcare mutuals, enterprises operating in the social and solidarity economy (SSE), teaching unions and other civil society organisations have found themselves at the centre of the health and education crisis and have been the first to respond to it on the ground. This moment of crisis is an opportunity to build on projects that can make a difference, to ensure access to healthcare, social welfare and education for all, and, more than ever, to support the values of solidarity.
Front line carers and teachers
In a few short months, Covid-19 has had a major impact on all of our lives.And the resilience of the world’s healthcare systems was the first thing to be put to the test. In some countries, the epidemic has pushed already fragile healthcare systems to the breaking point, with serious consequences for the accessibility of other health services. Maternity and infant health services have, in some cases, been reduced.
The health crisis has become both social and humanitarian. And for good reason, as the basic human right to social welfare is not yet a reality for the majority of the world’s population: 55% of the world’s inhabitants have no form of social protection. It is these 4 billion plus people who have no access to healthcare, family assistance, or unemployment benefits, that have been most severely affected by the pandemic.
The education system was immediately affected. Over 1.6 billion pupils and 63 million primary and secondary school teachers have been affected by the education crisis caused by Covid-19, often with serious consequences: these include reduced job security for teachers, deteriorating mental health, higher numbers of school drop outs, an increase in violence, loss of access to school health services and food, and an increase in child labour. It is thus likely that millions of children – and girls in particular - will not return to school when the current coronavirus crisis has ended.
Never has the interdependence between health and education been starker. It’s this link between these two worlds that has persuaded our diverse organisations from the social and solidarity economy (SSE) and from civil society to come together to form a network. We believe that a healthy pupil learns better and for longer. And as a result of the education they receive, they will be able to make healthier life choices in the future. Similarly, a teacher in good physical and mental health can provide better quality education. We therefore believe that health and safety in schools are necessary conditions for the construction of quality education systems, while schools, for their part, are privileged spaces for promoting health, learning, equality and solidarity.
Maintaining “relational solidarity” to fight the pandemic
The daily operations of our organisations have also been affected by the coronavirus. Whether through the brutal interruption of income streams due to the cessation of activities during lockdown (Burkina Faso), members struggling to pay healthcare mutuals their subscription fees (Republic of Congo) or the reduction or deferral of international cooperation funding, the crisis has tested our organisations’ financial solidity.
In this difficult context, our members, all real local stakeholders, have worked hard to implement the best solutions for the benefit of pupils, patients, members, families, our colleagues and the vulnerable. In order to respond to the urgency of the situation without, however, renouncing our culture and our solidarity and democratic business model.
Since the crisis began, trade unions have supported their colleagues remotely, and on the ground, to ensure educational continuity and to fight for teacher security, often in the absence of any resources to deliver distance learning courses, and sometimes in the face of contradictory orders from their supervising ministry. Unions have also helped organise the return to school, easing teacher stress and concerns over possible contamination, often partly caused by the lack of adequate personal protective equipment.
In hospitals, health centres and welcome centres for the elderly, the Network’s organisations have helped ensure the continuity of health services, covered healthcare costs, relieved the isolation felt by many and supported the most fragile social welfare recipients. Digital tools have made it possible to maintain links with members, patients and social security contributors, and have also served as tools for prevention, information, health promotion and support, as evidenced by the teleconsultation services provided by Mesdocteurs (MGEN, France) and the platform #EnsembleContreLeCovid (TogetherAgainstCovid) set up by VYV Group stakeholders in France. In Belgium, mutuals have enlisted as field operators monitoring contacts in order to break the virus’s transmission chains, while establishing the parameters necessary for protecting privacy.
The need to provide ongoing distance learning has also shed considerable light on education inequalities. Although the impact of the pandemic varies from one context to another, pupils and teaching staff already in vulnerable situations have been hit the hardest. Learners with access to a computer or family support have been able to continue learning in this specific context. But currently, over half of all pupils worldwide have neither internet access, nor the hardware requiredfor them to take advantage of distance learning programmes, with the poorest households also lacking access to both television and radio sets. In Gambia, the Gambia Teachers’ Union (GTU) has consequently organised the distribution of books and over 500 solar power radios to enable learners in rural areas to access the national distance learning programme which is delivered through radio and television.
In education, as in health, we have seen that face to face contact has been vital. We must therefore continue to seek the right balance between technology and relationships, while being careful not to fall into the “everything digital” trap, which has opened the door to educational commodification in many countries.
Innovation, both social and technological, has thus entailed taking care of others, even while social distancing. This is in fact our very purpose: human support and local solidarity.
Revaluing prevention, mental health and our courses of solidary action
Within the context of this crisis, social dialogue and the trust we place in teachers and healthcare workers are more important than ever. The coronavirus episode will have sanctioned our organisations’ social performance. We have proved that our organisations were resilient and able to find solutions when faced with critical challenges, thanks to the first class professional and personal skills of staff, activists, employees and partners. We must continue to fight to ensure that our agility and expertise, but also the specifics of our professions and solidary business models are recognised and valued.
Within our organisations, the health crisis will have also confirmed orientations and converted certain actionable points into priorities.
The period will have highlighted the importance of creating a culture of prevention, and in particular the fundamental role of health education through educational communities.
Regarding prevention, the lessons learned from the crisis concern how we can spread messages in order to reach our audiences and promote new behaviours. They include the joint crafting of messages, the importance of the link to personal experience (accounts of those close to us), fighting against fake news and even promoting a scientific culture.
The psychological trauma generated by the pandemic has brought the issue of mental health to the world’s attention. Issues relating to stress in the workplace, excessive workloads and burnout, were already on our organisations’ agendas and they continue to develop psychological support systems for their beneficiaries. Ensuring the wellbeing of teaching staff and pupils is also currently a vital priority for education systems and teaching unions.
Colombian organisation Gestarsalud has seen in this an opportunity to accelerate projects able to influence the main factors determining health, including food and nutritional safety and sovereignty. In this way, we can have an impact, not only on building up healthcare itself, but also on generating income for families and communities.
Exchanging and cooperating with other countries to get back to the basics of living together
Can this crisis help us build the society of tomorrow, in which we can all live together?
By contrast, Covid-19 crisis has exposed a number of key issues: the global interdependence of States in the face of threats like pandemics and climate change, the dangers of neoliberal policies, inequalities caused by the privatisation of education and healthcare and the urgent need to establish social welfare systems that are comprehensive, universal and collectively financed.
This health catastrophe has really accelerated awareness-raising efforts. It has reminded us that healthcare, education and solidarity against life’s risks are the cement that holds our societies together as, thereby, is the fundamental role played by carers and teachers. It has also shown that the model built on cooperation for the common good is the best suited to these health, social and environmental crises.
We are remaining vigilant in the face of multiple unknowns surrounding the pandemic’s evolution: we fear the health risks, the magnitude of the economic and social crisis and we continue to be alarmed in the face of the political distortions and attacks on social and environmental progress.
But we are first and foremost confident of our collective ability to face these social, economic and environmental challenges. We are optimistic given the capacity of the young to mobilise on issues of solidarity. We are confident in our organisations that are upholding the concern for others, solidarity and democracy that is in their DNA, while operating as active forces for change.
More than ever before, we will continue to take actions to ensure quality education, access to healthcare and social welfare is available to all, globally. For this reason, we call on everyone to cooperate on issues relating to sustainable development in the broad sense, to share good practices to promote the physical and mental health of education communities, and to exchange knowledge in order to promote solidary business models and public policies that centre the human being. Let’s mobilise our collective intelligence and combine our strength for a second wave....of solidarity!
Note: Created in 2009 by Education International, MGEN (Mutuelle Générale de l’Éducation Nationale, France) and the Association Internationale de la Mutualité, the Education and Solidarity Network is an international non-profit organisation bringing together 40 organisations working in education, healthcare and the social and solidarity economy (SSE) on all 5 continents for the wellbeing of education communities. The Network’s members work together all over the world to promote the health and wellbeing of education communities in schools, promote access to healthcare through the extension of solidary social welfare systems, and mobilise the younger generations around solidarity issues.
This article has been written with the help of contributions from the Network’s members, including MGEN, UNSA-Education, Gestarsalud, Social Enterprise International, Solidaris, Groupe Vyv, Essentiel International, Gambia Teachers Union, SNEA-B and Tepco Santé. The original article is available here.