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Ebola threatens to create a new generation of illiterate and uneducated

OCTOBER 14, 2014 By Zainab Tunkara Clarkson

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Apart from the health and environmental woes that Ebola has brought upon us, we now have the added problem of it producing a new generation of illiterate citizens. Over the last few days, the world has finally woken up to the realities of the Ebola virus disease (EVD), acknowledging that it poses as great a risk to humanity as HIV/Aids and at long last, something is being done to contain the scourge.

At a recent meeting of finance ministers in Washington DC, hosted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a £300m funding package was announced to help fight the virus. This money will be used to fund treatment, isolation and medical centres across Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia that have bore the brunt of EVD.

At the Washington meeting, Dr Tom Friedan, the director of the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), said: “In the 30 years I’ve been working in public health, the only disease that has been like this is Aids. We have to work now so that this is not the world’s next Aids.”

Fully conscious of the very rapid pace with which the virus spreads, world leaders are sending personnel to the three affected countries to help with containment. They hope that with these new measures, numbers will start to drop from January, and after that, begin to decline.

In Sierra Leone, all schools currently remain closed as a result of the outbreak. Although this is seen as a good control measure, it poses serious long-term risks for the country. Schools are not likely to open until the second quarter of 2015, meaning that pupils will miss almost a year of academic studies.

Conscious of the long-term potential impact on our socio-economic development, the government has launched an ambitious education project to ensure that 1 million school children can have access to continuing education, while this pandemic lasts. Under the plan, pupils will receive tuition radio broadcasts in a variety of subjects for four hours, six days a week, through 41 radio stations and the country’s sole television channel.

Education minister, Dr Minkailu Bah, said: “The plan is to provide a suitable option for our school-going population, as the entire school system has been disrupted since the outbreak of the Ebola disease.”

Sierra Leone’s schools have been closed since the government announced a state of emergency in July 2014, in response to the scourge that has led to the death of over 600 Sierra Leoneans. More than 2 million of the total population of 5.7 million are aged between 3 years and 17 years. And although secondary school attendance is less than 40% for both boys and girls, it would be catastrophic and irresponsible not to do something about ensuring their continuing education at this difficult time.

Dr Bah admitted that reaching many of Sierra Leone’s school children would be challenging, as radio ownership is only about 25%, with fewer than 2% of the population having access to a television. However, the minister is intent on ensuring that all school children can have access to a radio set, so as to continue their learning until the end of the state of emergency.

Sylvester Meheaux of the Conference of Principals of Secondary Schools, said: “As things now are we cannot expect schools to reopen until early 2015, and in the meantime, we are worried some children would end up becoming dropouts, pregnant, etc. This is a major concern for us in the educational sector.”

Sam Mbayo, a retired clerk from the eastern district of Kailahun, added: “This is not the type of tuition we used to know for our children, but we have little option. Any means to educate our children, rather than leaving them idle is to be welcomed; otherwise we are going to have a generation of illiterates.”

Manuel Fontaine, the regional director of UN children’s fund Unicef, which is supporting the initiative, said the radio classes would be focussed on teaching children life skills and maintaining their contact with the outside world.

Dr Bah added that his ministry would be finding other means of accommodating the needs of the hard-to-reach areas that are without access to radios.

With large swathes of rural Sierra Leone lacking basic amenities like roads, power supply and access to televisions, this is a huge undertaking Dr Bah and his colleagues are taking on. A former academic himself, whose most recent job was as a lecturer at Fourah Bay College, Dr Bah is not new to the challenges Sierra Leone’s education sector faces. But this task is onerous. Maybe one way of addressing the crisis is to get radios and batteries distributed to outlying areas, as a way of linking children in these areas with the proposed Remote Education Access Channel (REACH) Programme.

Unlike neighbouring Ghana and Nigeria where Internet access and mobile telephone usage is widespread, Sierra Leone is not really integrated into the global digital village. Dr Bah could request some of the $300m coming from the IMF and World Bank to purchase the radios – especially manually winding radio. Unicef could also be approached to provide TV and radio sets, although the reality is that whatever is donated will be well short of demand.

Whatever the case, nothing is an ideal substitute for getting Sierra Leone’s children back in school, and this will only happen when the medical authorities sound the all-clear.

With about 4,000 US troops deployed to West Africa, the international community donating $300m, and the CDC finally getting the world’s attention, hopefully, this will be sooner than later.

Sierra Leone is currently standing on the precipice, as the combination of a dangerous epidemic and its accompanying socio-economic woes threaten to engulf the whole country. However, we must not relent or despair, as the fightback has begun and we need all our fortitude to believe that we will come out of this battle victorious.

About the Author

Zainab Tunkara Clarkson is a Development Consultant and heads the Organisation of Women Networks for Entrepreneurs (Owners) – a national network of female entrepreneurs in Sierra Leone which seeks to empower women in business. She has worked extensively in private, public and civil society sectors across UK in Senior Management positions. Zainab is a strong advocate for Race and Gender Equality and the welfare of African children; she is an expert in the field of diversity issues.

Zainab currently serves as a Trustee on the Board of the Greenwich Inclusion Project, as well as AFRUCA – Africans Unite against Child Abuse (UK). She is also a Board Member of Teach For Sierra Leone. She is the Children and Gender Editor and Marketing Director of Voices from the Diaspora Radio Network.

She has a BA degree in Business and Marketing from Sussex University, a postgraduate degree in NGO and International Development Management from the University of East London and a postgraduate Diploma in Public Health.