In many parts of the world, schools are not just centers of learning, they also play a key role in social protection.  In the image, school children from the Sundarbans, in India.

Until two months ago, Samoa, a Polynesian island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, had been spared from the coronavirus. Zero cases until March 2022. But that has not saved it from disaster. The measures taken far away from there ended tourism (which represented 55% of its economy) and reduced trade to a minimum (its exports of copra and coconut oil accounted for more than 10% of its GDP), plunging the country into a deep economic and social crisis. The Samoa case shows how the covid pandemic, but also the measures to contain it, have caused enormous collateral damage that goes beyond health. Now, a report promoted by the United Nations shows the cascading effects unleashed in the last two years. Its authors believe that there are a few lessons to learn to mitigate the risks of system failure in the future.

next week the United Nations Office for Disaster Reduction (UNDRR, in its acronym in English) celebrates in Bali (Indonesia) a conference whose objective is the same that gives name to this office. The choice of Bali, the tourist hub of this Southeast Asian country, is significant. Locally, the flow of tourists dried up throughout 2020 and much of 2021. On a national scale, this was the most populous country (273 million inhabitants) in which the health system collapsed.

Indonesia is one of five case studies that are part of the report Rethinking risks in times of Covid-19 prepared by researchers from the United Nations University (UNU) and the UNDRR. The other four are Cox’s Bazaar (Bangladesh), where almost a million Rohingya take refuge, the Sundarbans region (India), a mangrove area that has had to deal with the pandemic and the effects of a cyclone at the same time, Marítima (the coastal region of Togo, in Africa) that has experienced an explosive migratory phenomenon due to covid, and Guayaquil, the main port of Ecuador and whose images of infected corpses went around the world.

Michael Hagenlocher is a UNU researcher in the field of systemic risk management and lead author of the report. On the selection of these five locations, Hagenlocher says that “together they provide a comprehensive overview of the systemic and cascading risks and impacts related to the pandemic, but they are not, by design, representative of any particular group of countries.” His goal, he adds, “was to better understand how the risks linked to the pandemic manifest themselves in different contexts and settings, and what lessons we can learn from it.”

“The direct effects of the pandemic were mainly on human health and health systems, while the cascading effects, for example on livelihoods, employment or education, were due to the restriction measures implemented. ”

Michael Hagenlocher, researcher at the United Nations University

Among those lessons left by the coronavirus is the fact that the pandemic and some of the measures taken to contain it have had cascading effects that have traversed the entire society. In fact, as Hagenlocher says, the research shows that “the direct effects of the pandemic were mainly on human health and health systems, while the cascading effects, for example, on livelihoods, employment or education, to name just a few, were mainly due to some of the restriction measures put in place to reduce further spread of the disease, save lives and reduce the risk of collapse of the health system.”

The coronavirus and, once again, the measures to stop it have not punished everyone equally. He has done it differently depending on wealth, race or where you live. But this difference is especially pronounced according to gender. Globally, women make up 70% of health personnel, a percentage that rises to 90% if the social assistance sector is included. They were in the first line of defense. For girls, the report highlights how school closures in places like Cox’s Bazaar and Sundarbans have led to an increase in child marriage and child labour.

Himanshu Shekhar is a researcher at the UNU Institute for Environmental and Human Security and a co-author of the report. “In India [Shekhar es indio] the schools were closed for two months and here, the school not only gives you education, it also gives you social protection”, he recalls. Food, clothing, security, stopping child labor… functions that schools failed to fulfill. Shekar investigated the case in the Sundarbans region on the ground. Here and in India as a whole, the more than half a million deaths (official figure) “were concentrated in those who work outside and provided the main household income.”

In many parts of the world, schools are not just centers of learning, they also play a key role in social protection.  In the image, school children from the Sundarbans, in India.
In many parts of the world, schools are not just centers of learning, they also play a key role in social protection. In the image, school children from the Sundarbans, in India.Polina Shapova

Shekhar was also in Guayaquil (Ecuador’s main city and a large Latin American port). They chose it because it is an urban environment and its international port connection. Here, and across the country, there was a series of social unrest and a general lack of adherence to the rules in the first months of the pandemic. Although what remained in the retina of millions of people were the corpses lying in the streets of people who died of covid or those who died at the doors of hospitals and that nobody picked up.

“In Guayaquil there was a combination of factors,” says Shekhar. But before looking at the coronavirus, he believes it is necessary to look back: “Across the country and at the municipal level, an austerity policy was imposed five years ago that weakened the health system. There were not enough hospitals and not enough beds,” he adds. Added to that is a poor design, designed for occasional use. The panic of the first few months also played a role, overloading the entire system until it collapsed.

The case of the Togolese Maritime region exemplifies how measures against the coronavirus, more than the virus itself, generate a series of effects that have to do with health. This country north of the Gulf of Guinea is coming out of the pandemic relatively well. Since the beginning of 2020, they have barely had 37,000 cases and about 270 deaths, for a total population of more than 8.2 million. However, the covid has accentuated a long-standing trend: the migration of the youngest from the countryside to the cities on the coast. This is emptying the fields and complicating agricultural production.

The five cases studied in depth come from countries whose health and social protection systems are far from European levels. What then can the inhabitants of the first world learn? For the authors of the report, this is the main lesson of the pandemic, the interconnection of the entire system. “We are all part of a global network, no matter where you are, you are ultimately affected,” says Shekhar. As Hagenlocher recalls, “before the pandemic, there was not much awareness that risks, such as floods, droughts or regional outbreaks of disease, can have collateral effects on societies around the world. It was only when Covid began to spread and affect our daily lives that the true extent of how the interdependencies in our highly interconnected world are causing cascading impacts within and between societies became fully visible.”

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