Standing in front of India’s Taj Mahal, tour guide Raju Usmani fears for his daughter’s future. With Covid-19 decimating his income, he may have to pull her out of school just as she is catching up after nearly two years stuck at home.
Areeba, 10, is among 1.6 billion children globally — more than 90% of all school students — who have been affected by pandemic school closures, which threaten to widen wealth inequalities both within and between countries.
“We’re running the risk of a lost generation,” UN education expert Robert Jenkins told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It’s a now-or-never moment to turn things around.”
Without urgent action, many countries could end up without the skilled workers they need for their future development, said Jenkins, head of education at UN children’s agency Unicef.
He is also increasingly concerned about the risk of social instability in countries where a large number of youths are left without skills, jobs or hope.
Many children have quit to earn money. Globally, 9-million risk being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 because of the pandemic.
Children in low- and middle-income nations have been disproportionately affected as their schools tended to shut for longer and they were less able to access remote learning, Unicef said ahead of the pandemic’s two-year anniversary on Friday.
There are no global figures on the numbers who have dropped out. But evidence from Uganda — where schools reopened in January after being shut for a record 22 months — suggests up to 30% of children may not return to class.
School closures have increased child labour, adolescent pregnancies and early marriages, children’s rights activists say. And many parents impoverished by lockdowns can no longer afford to send their children to school.
The World Bank says classroom shutdowns could cost children $17-trillion in lifetime earnings — the equivalent of 14% of today’s global GDP — as education losses limit their future opportunities.