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Education: Collateral damage in the Covid-19 war?


Dr Andrew Wentzel retired from teaching and education in 2011. During that 44-year relationship, he progressed from teacher to lecturer to curriculum advisor with the Western Cape Education Department. He has served on the Western Cape College of Education Council, headed the College Curriculum Committee, and was its sports administrator. He is still involved in his other passion – sport. He played soccer and baseball at provincial level. He is currently head of development for the Western Cape Softball Association.

‘People around the world are anxiously tracking the numbers of new cases and deaths due to Covid-19. But in doing so, we are distracted from the catastrophic effects of the pandemic on children.’

The term “collateral damage”, according to, was first recorded in 1985-90.  It became popularised in the mid-20th century by the US military’s use of the term to justify civilian deaths and destruction of property from their military strikes or acts of war – a practice which is still carried on today. 

However, the term “collateral damage” has more recently been generalised to mean any unintended consequence. The notion of doing something for the greater good somehow reminds me of the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished”, since some well-intended actions may have unintended negative consequences, but in the case of collateral damage, always for the “beneficiary”.

The Covid-19 management strategies recommended to contain the spread of the coronavirus worldwide by the World Health Organisation (WHO) reflect such good intention. I merely contend that this focus on quelling the pandemic has left us vulnerable to collateral damage. This narrow focus is also at the heart of the world leaders’ $8-billion pledge to collect funds to be used “to research, manufacture and distribute a possible vaccine and treatments for Covid-19” (Reuters, May 4 2020). 

 A bit of positive “collateral damage” could be the revelation that:

“This [pledge] will help kick-start unprecedented global cooperation,” by the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who chaired the online pledge event. An earlier statement by Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore (9 April 2020) – that “the world is currently united in a shared struggle against an invisible enemy”, also hints at such global unity. 

It is pleasing to note that South Africa, recently placed in junk status due to its struggling economy, yet spending billions of rand to not only fight the virus but also to assist the poorest of the poor to basically just survive, has also pledged.

Meanwhile, the United States, which has one of the strongest economies in the world, has not done so. I can only speculate as to why, being aware that the US had, on an instruction from its president, withheld its contribution to the WHO, the leading agency in the fight against the disease and sure to be involved in this critical anti-Covid-19 intervention. If related, is this not taking the holding of a grudge too far?

I have spent my life in teaching, starting with children, moving on to students and later adults. I retired as a subject adviser having run the gamut of what teaching has to offer. My clients were mainly children and young adults and my concern is for these age groups, some starting while others may be nearing the end of their formal education.

Education is one area that will clearly be affected by the fallout from this rightly prioritised, yet distinct focus on the pandemic with less attention given to its aftermath.

Unicef echoes this sentiment in its Policy Brief:

The impact of COVID-19 on children: “Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims.” 

In further support of the above, Laurence Chandy at the Geneva Palais briefing (17 April 2020), said:  

“People around the world are anxiously tracking the numbers of new cases and deaths due to Covid-19. But in doing so, we are distracted from the catastrophic effects of the pandemic on children. 

“The effects of the pandemic are not limited to health but extend to many dimensions of children’s lives: their education, safety and poverty. And these effects are largely attributable not to the virus but to the mitigation measures governments have taken, which in some settings, may inadvertently do more harm than good”. 

Presently, schools in South Africa and all around the world are empty. Education has been disrupted and children are now at home. This may have put children in harm’s way where domestic violence is prevalent or where caregivers are not always present. With impoverished families, feeding of children will also be problematic since school feeding schemes which lessened the burden are not accessible. 

In the more impoverished areas and informal settlements, children are at greater risk. The recommended simple precautions of washing your hands with soap (requiring soap and water), wearing a mask (which on the street costs R15 each), observing social distancing (in a one-roomed dwelling housing an extended family), are not possible for the children of the poor who now find themselves under “house arrest”. 

To its credit, South Africa and its citizens have banded together to provide funds and resources to fix failing infrastructure and provide water, financial packages and food to the neediest. This response is good for the now, but should be used as the catalyst for finding a more permanent solution – prioritised and incrementally implemented – for life after Covid-19. 

Therefore, broadening the focus beyond the narrow count of new cases and new deaths and considering other associated Covid-19 risks, especially for the future leaders of our country, is necessary. Expanding social assistance, job security, access to homes and food, and the like, to cater for a new normal, starting with the end of the SA pandemic and replacing the normal currently in place, significantly poorer than the one before the lockdown was installed, will be required. 

For now, learners and their teachers will have to adjust to a new reality which will change again with the end of lockdown. Teaching in South Africa, and probably worldwide, will never be the same again. DM


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