Youth Ambassadors

Always Be Prepared, the Samantha Singh Memorial Award-winning essay

Oluwadamilola Akintewe is the inaugural winner of the Samantha Singh Memorial Award. Her award-winning essay answered this question:

What are the most urgent steps African governments and the international community should take to avoid a ‘lost decade’ in the wake of COVID-19?

Ten young maidens were attending a wedding ball one fateful evening. The party’s location was very far and so, they had to travel with their lamps for sight. However, while all 10 of these maidens carried their individual lamp filled with enough oil, five of them took extra jars of oil – just in case. Unexpectedly, the bridegroom was fashionably late to the venue and most of the guests had gone to sleep. When the bridegroom finally showed up at midnight, he had one criterion: that only guests with working lamps would be granted access into the reception — I guess electricity was not a thing then and they needed all the lighting they could get.

Alas! Five out of the 10 maidens already burned out their oil keeping their lamps on as they slept, so they were not let into the wedding ball. Only the remaining five with extra jars of oil were granted entrance. I believe this story from the bible, popularly known as “the parable of the ten virgins,” could have served as the premise for the Boy Scout’s motto – always be prepared. Being ready for anything and everything is a major survival skill but unfortunately, the world failed to take heed to this universal rule when COVID-19 hit in December 2019.

The year 2030 was the goal; the year the world come together to draw out the reports of the 15-year journey of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals were designed to tackle most of the global issues facing our world in general; from poverty to gender equality and climate change. It was supposed to be the year the future began as we foray into the next step of our evolution as humans. The beautiful part of this journey is that for the first time ever, the responsibility to be part of the change was not limited to leaders and decision-makers only. We saw as people from every corner of the planet came together as advocates, innovators, entrepreneurs, disruptors, and change agents to get all hands on deck and create the world we desired, right from their immediate community for global development, myself included, as my focus is on inclusive education and changing the gender inequality narrative in Nigeria.

The energy was compelling, intriguing, and intoxicating —no generation had subscribed this much to social justice and development. In fact, the United Nations, at the 2019’s General Assembly, designated this decade as the “decade of action.” There was no time to waste.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown unprecedentedly came and posed a threat to this clearly laid out plan to achieve an inclusive and sustainable world by 2030.

It was one sunny afternoon on Valentine’s Day in 2020 when the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Egypt, North Africa. Living in Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa, there had been a fallacious claim flying around that the virus could not survive in our hot climes and so, we relied on that claim and felt safe in this false sense of safety. As expected, the entire country went haywire the day the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Lagos, one of Africa’s biggest, most populous, and industrious cities.

I remember being in school on that Friday, preparing for my first semester examination to begin on Monday. It was not long that a notice was sent across the school asking students to vacate the premises in 24 hours, so as to curb the spread of the virus; a vacation that would last for over 10 months as schools were closed indefinitely.

Education was, unfortunately, not the only affected sector —the subsequent global lockdown damaged economic activities to a great length that small scale businesses, which are unarguably the bedrock and pillar of every thriving economy, were closing down, and this is not particular to Africa alone. According to Yelp, as of Aug. 31, some 163,735 businesses have indicated on Yelp that they have closed, a 23% increase since mid-July in New York. That is down from the 180,000 that closed at the very beginning of the pandemic.

And it gets worse —while coronavirus can affect anyone, the level of its impact on each person or sector differs. Part of these effects are gender-based with a major focus on women and women of colour. According to the World Bank in terms of the gender gap, globally, female-owned businesses were 5.9 percentage points more likely to have closed their businesses than male-owned businesses, taking into account regional attributes.

Now, it is quite ironic that the designated “decade of action” is now being referred to as “the lost decade.” The COVID-19 virus affected the entire system, with no sector spared from its wrath. In a survey sample, tourism and other consumer-focused businesses appear to have been hit particularly hard. Globally, the sectors with the most business closures were: travel or tourism agencies (54% closed), hospitality and event services (47%), education and child care services (45%), performing arts and entertainment (36%), and hotels, cafes, and restaurants (32%). Now, it is obvious that if proper care is not taken, this decade would be wasted, salvaging the losses the pandemic left in its wake.

It is almost as if there is always another problem springing out as soon as a solution is created. For example, now that vaccines have been formulated after months of scientific research and with continuous improvements on them, there is still the question of how far it will take to get the doses across the world to every country and not leave one behind. Underdeveloped countries, mostly in Africa, with no fiscal power and infrastructural resources, are thrown into another disarray as the leaders run around begging for help.

With all these obvious disasters waiting to happen, there is a major need to come up with solutions to avoid losing the ‘20s with its prospects to the pandemic. I am of the opinion that the solution is right here with us. If anything at all, the pandemic primarily exposed that we were never ready to handle uncertainties and changes in routines such as the “new normal” that we are faced with globally. We talk of change, but are not ready to face it should it finally stare at us in the face.

We had failed to put adequate structures into place in important sectors such as education, healthcare, and research, and that was why we are where we are. It is noteworthy that this flaw is not particular to Africa, it is a global issue.

Education was badly hit by the pandemic and some of the fix-it ideas include restructuring and reinvesting in educational technological advancements. More funds should be poured as an investment into the educational sector. With Nigeria notably referred to as the “giant of Africa” standing in as example, students from public schools automatically lost a year of academics due to the closure of schools. Schools were closed in March 2020 only to be reopened in January, 2021. While developed countries resorted to virtual learning to keep up the academic requirements of students, schools in Nigeria were not equipped for such. I had to create “project safe school” to bridge the educational inequality gap in rural communities of Nigeria due to the unavailability of resources for virtual learning. Volunteers were recruited to teach mathematics, English language, STEM, and music to kids while waiting for the reopening of schools. Also, the reoccurring industrial strike by labour unions, especially teachers, spurred by the lack of funds for salary payment further exposed that the education sector holds no priority in Nigeria, as President Buhari’s 2021 budget share for education is Nigeria’s lowest in 10 years. It receives 5.6% of the total budget, much below the recommended benchmark. The Nigerian education sector has been poorly funded in the past years, falling below the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recommendation which should be between 15-20%.

So, to ensure that this decade is not lost when it comes to education, the budget must be raised to meet the international standards in Nigeria and other parts of the world facing the same issue. Also, resources and equipment to prepare for uncertainties such as a pandemic that could affect education should be put into place. After all, Nelson Mandela had famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” With schools serving as a major educational avenue, it is a knowledge-generating creation and should not be remolded into businesses to generate revenues, meaning it needs investment.

Healthcare is another sector that was badly hit by the pandemic. With the load the pandemic placed on healthcare systems, it revealed a lot of lapses and malfunctions in the system which need to be adequately and promptly handled to prevent future reoccurrences. According to The New York Times, hospitals were reeling under a 46%percent spike in COVID-19 patients as public spaces like stadiums and parking lots were converted into mini health centers due to the workload on hospitals.

COVID-19 could have been prevented if only the nations of the world had cooperated and subscribed to competent empathic political leadership instead of looking away. But here we are. As a solution, a global research fund should be created and donated to countries to fund groundbreaking scientific discoveries to position us in better spaces for handling the pandemic. If we aspire to make an impact, we must create an enabling ecosystem for its actualization.

Furthermore, the 17 Global Goals cannot be dispensed with just, because the world took a detour for a year. No time is better than now to invest in young people as leaders to take up the mantle of leadership. Samantha Singh contributed her quota to development. With this essay, I become a part of her legacy, a mouthpiece to continue her story. She was a young leader who exemplified competent leadership and this is why we must drive entrepreneurial innovation. It is a move in the right direction, which will see to it that young people investing in Global Goals are focusing on innovation and sustainability that have the potential to positively change the course of history. We need to support them with self-development training and funding to bring their ideas to life so that we can get back on track for 2030. There has been enough suffering. Let’s not allow a generation to pay for a great reversal in development we can still prevent.

In addition, Africa houses the world’s largest young population with over 60% under the age of 25. So, investments to improve technology, healthcare, education and the environment, as well as improvements in governance and transparency should be put in place, particularly in emerging and developing economies. Governments should further strengthen social protection safety nets.

In conclusion, the scramble to mitigate the harsh effects of the pandemic expressed the need for us to work together. After all, the deaths saw no differences in race, gender, age, religion, geographical location, sexual orientation, or everything humanity had created as a dividing element. While lasting change begins from an individual level, we cannot achieve our fullest potentials if we refuse to work together as one body, one race – the human race. Small actions taken together eventually lead to lasting change. Unlike the initial 10 maidens, strong and developed nations need to stretch out a helping hand to the underdeveloped ones, and share their oil so that no one is left behind. We must be able look beyond our differences and weaknesses as countries so that we can tell better tales at the end of this delicate decade. And as we count our losses, we must do so in love, in oneness, and togetherness as we jointly face the future.

Find out more about the Samantha Singh Memorial Award.

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