A new initiative for safe schools that will combat Ebola has been launched in the wake of a visit to the worst affected areas in West Africa by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and International Finance Corporation CEO Jin-Yong Cai.
The initiative comes as The Global Business Coalition for Education reports that 5 million children are no longer attending school simply because of the Ebola outbreak.
While in some extreme cases schools have to be closed when they are at the center of an outbreak, investing in safe schools -- and the return of pupils to receive regular temperature checks and health education -- may be the best way to combat Ebola's further spread.
Since March 2014, more than 6,000 people have died from Ebola -- the victims concentrated among the poor, the rural, the illiterate, women and girls. In short, as always, the most marginalized are the most at risk victims.
But Ebola has had an even wider impact. And for many of the 5 million children shut out of school, lives are on hold. New pressures -- some are forced into child labor, some are pushed into child marriage -- are overwhelming them. Despair is taking over.
It was once said you can survive for 40 days without food, 8 days without water, 8 minutes without air, but you cannot survive a minute without hope. The one way that young people can continue to hope for a better future is by continuing to go to school every day.
The day-to-day lives of today's victims of widespread school closures in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are very different from a year ago. The students now have no place to learn, but that does not stop them mixing with each other, going outside and congregating in the streets. This is, of course, at odds with the public health rationale for closing schools. And while they could be receiving vital health information in their schools and undergoing temperature checks every day, they wander the streets instead, far outside the capacity of the already overburdened health systems to keep an eye on them.
Outside their school, girls are under even more intense pressures with worrying reports pointing to increased rates of child pregnancy and teenage marriage, and with many boys and girls forced into domestic or other forms of underage labor to become breadwinners to make up for lost household incomes when parents are out of work.
If this continues, it is not likely to be a short-term tragedy. We know from other emergencies -- from epidemics to armed conflicts -- that half the children who miss more than a year at school never see the inside of a classroom again.
TIME FOR REOPENING OF SAFE SCHOOLS
Fortunately the business community, led by Nigeria's most successful business leader and philanthropist Aliko Dangote and Econet Wireless founder and charity pioneer Strive Masiyiwa, are alerting Africa to the urgent need to change course. Through the Global Business Coalition for Education they are calling for an early, responsible reopening of safe schools.
Of course there are communities where schools still need to be temporarily closed to control the spread of Ebola -- and here we recommend using new distance learning technologies that Masiyiwa has been piloting to keep children inside the world of education.
But, as this week's report shows, the vast bulk of schools should be seen as the first line of defense in preventing Ebola's spread and keeping children healthy. The safe school is one where there are teachers trained in basic public health. Schoolchildren are alerted to vital information about cleanliness, and about proper nutrition to keep their powers of resistance strong. With twice daily temperature checks, schools can be a monitoring and early warning system against the spread of disease.
Only a few months ago, Nigeria stopped the spread of Ebola. One key reason was that all state ministries of education ordered a minimum of two staff in each school to be properly trained by health workers about the Ebola virus.
We see how important the school function is in our own societies. A few days ago, my two children in Great Britain were offered vaccines against the flu at their local school. In the United States alone, simple guidelines to prevent the spread of the flu posted in schools is estimated to stop 63 million cases each year.
The U.N. agencies that are ready to move -- and that work hand in hand with governments -- are willing to establish clear guidelines for the reopening of safe schools and help prepare the necessary plans and safeguards. But until the world understands what we are losing by keeping schools closed, the shortage of funds frustrates the scale of response needed.
Visits like those made by Ban Ki-moon and Jim Yong Kim next week can make a difference. In this festive Christmas season, the world cannot afford to relax. 2015 must be the year when we start to see that safe schools and not school closures are the better way out of the Ebola crisis.