Mon, Jul 26, 2021

An “illiterate generation”—one of Iraq’s untold pandemic stories

MENASource by Hezha Barzani

Education Iraq Middle East Politics & Diplomacy Resilience & Society

A teacher instructs students in the classroom, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a school in Baghdad, Iraq January 19, 2021. Picture taken January 19, 2021. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic in Iraq are devastating. With a population of over thirty-nine million, Iraq has totaled at least 1.5 million infections and over eighteen thousand deaths since the start of the pandemic. Like much of the Middle East, the vaccination effort in Iraq is progressing at an alarmingly slow rate—only 0.99 percent of Iraq’s population is fully vaccinated. Globally, the conversation surrounding COVID-19 is, understandably, focused on the death toll, number of infections, and vaccination rates. Yet, similarly grave statistics can be found in the countless untold stories in countries like war-ravaged Iraq, where the devastating social impacts of COVID-19 receive little global attention, particularly youth education.

Throughout the pandemic, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraq’s federal government mandated school closures nationwide, affecting eleven million Iraqi children, ranging from pre-primary students to post-secondary students. The devastating impacts of COVID-19, coupled with years of spillover effects of violent conflict and extremism, have already proved to be detrimental to students whose education and future career ambitions already receive limited attention. Now, compounded with the effects of the pandemic, Iraq faces a perilous prospect: the potential for an entire illiterate generation

COVID-19 and education in Iraq

The pandemic has negatively impacted education in Iraq in two main ways: (1) Iraqi youths’ lack of access to education and (2) inconsistent school re-openings. A lack of access to education in Iraq is unfortunately not a new obstacle. This phenomenon has plagued the country for decades as a third-order consequence of multiple violent conflicts starting in 2003. Adding COVID-19 into the equation only exacerbates an already dire situation in the Iraqi education system.

In 2018, ACAPS, an independent humanitarian information provider, reported that only 20 percent of children in Iraq had access to computers at home, which made the transition to online learning during the pandemic virtually impossible for the majority of students. In a series of interviews with Iraqi parents, mothers and fathers conveyed that their children had received no education since school closures in February 2020. During the same series of interviews, a teacher from the Kurdistan region of Iraq cited the lack of internet access among students as a driving factor for why students could not attend school virtually. In terms of internet connectivity, Iraq ranks well below international averages of internet quality. Among the small number of Iraqi children who were fortunate enough to access both a computer and internet, connectivity is constantly interrupted by prolonged power outages. As a result, students could not attend virtual classes, complete required assignments, and study properly.

When looking at inconsistent school re-openings during the pandemic, both the KRG and the government of Iraq have constantly closed and re-opened schools due to fluctuations in COVID-19 case counts. Within these fluctuated closings and re-openings, overcrowded schools without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) have led to high rates of infections among children in Iraq. The country is also ranked amongst the highest in the world in terms of total duration of school closures during the pandemic, lasting sixty-two weeks. During this time, even children who could access schooling received low-quality education, with some instructors only able to teach 50 percent of their curriculum. Dr. Abbas Kadhim, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, described it as “a year to be forgotten for the kids” and total “chaos.”

Why does this matter?

In the Middle East and countries plagued by violence, education is vital to economic growth, social stability, better health, overall development, and numerous other areas crucial to national and regional stability. The coronavirus pandemic has deepened Iraq’s already troublesome financial crisis through a sharp decline in the country’s GDP, the volatility of oil prices, and a 9 percent contraction of the country’s non-oil economic sector. The risk of an illiterate generation in Iraq existed prior to COVID-19, but Iraq’s already dire education system is now on a crash course destined to clash with a failing economy. The possibility of illiterate Iraqi youth entering the job market during this economic crisis—without access to proper education to positively contribute to the economy—will inevitably lead to unemployment and poverty that will undoubtedly cause political and social instability. As Paul Collier, a British economist and academic, argued: “If young people are left with no alternative but unemployment and poverty, they are increasingly likely to join a rebellion as an alternate way of generating an income.”

What’s next?

US politicians, studies, and many people in America’s foreign policy establishment have argued that the US failed to properly rebuild Iraq after the 2003 invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein. Despite minor victories in transforming Iraq into a more democratic government, the years of conflict and social and political instability that followed continue to devastate the country. From a national security perspective, the US and other nations must recognize the significance of the current education situation’s impact on stability in Iraq. History shows the second and third order security issues that come from policies that fail to fully address human security in Iraq, like the power vacuum that created the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The US and its allies should act to restructure Iraq’s education system before it is too late.

Although the global vaccination effort put forth by President Joe Biden and G-7 leaders is a solid first step, additional global efforts must be put in place that do not focus solely on vaccine distribution. An example of this can be demonstrated through the July 23 announcement that the US is committing nearly $155 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Iraq. The US can maximize the impact of this funding by listening to what Iraqis and organizations on the ground are requesting—such as Save the Children’s urgent call for donations of PPE and sanitization tools for Iraqi schools. The US and allied nations have the ability to help combat infection rates in Iraqi schools by donating much-needed PPE and sending health experts into the region who can properly guide these communities on practices to re-open schools safely and keep them open.

From an internal perspective, the KRG and Iraq’s federal government must prioritize education by increasing spending in the sector. According to Barry Johnston, associate director of advocacy at the Malala Fund, both Iraqi governments have recently lowered their budgetary allocations for education, with Iraq as a whole spending less on education than any other nation in the Middle East. Next, there must be consistency among school openings between the KRG and Baghdad. The constant disruption of school openings and closures due to COVID spikes is both destructive to students’ education and unfair as restaurants and other businesses are permitted to remain open. Although closures due to COVID-19 are understandable, they should be implemented only under the most extreme circumstances. The governments of Iraq must collaborate with the international community for assistance, detailing how much PPE they require—along with other resources necessary to safely and effectively open schools—and ensure that they remain open.

Even the US experienced many significant struggles within its education sector during the coronavirus pandemic. This perspective should help US policymakers realize the gravity of Iraq’s situation. While there is no clear solution to fixing a deeply broken and crumbled education system, the international community cannot afford to turn a blind eye to Iraq again. Education is a clear area for improvement if there is to truly be a rebuild, particularly as the Biden administration shifts its focus toward diplomacy and away from traditional military operations. The US has failed the previous and current generation of Iraqis by not properly rebuilding the country. However, they can now truly support the future generations of Iraq by committing to a human security approach and supporting critical social sectors, like education.

Hezha Barzani is a Young Global Professional with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.