Covid-19’s Toll on Youth in Southeast Asia
By Karen Lee
As the United States has begun to relax Covid-19 restrictions, countries across Southeast Asia are experiencing an alarming resurgence of infections. While the most prominent impact of the pandemic on youth globally has been the disruption to education, Southeast Asian countries have also observed negative and prolonged effects on child labor, underage marriage, and malnutrition.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that learning losses from school closures in developing Asia have added up to $1.25 trillion as of April 2021, or 5.4 percent of the region’s 2020 GDP. The same ADB study found that school closures will result in a 2.4 percent annual decrease in each student’s future earnings, placing the entire region’s economic recovery and development potential at risk. Myanmar and the Philippines have reported the longest full school closures in the region, exceeding 200 days. In June 2021, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte rejected another Department of Education proposal to resume in-person classes, citing low rates of vaccination and the spread of the contagious Delta variant. Although the military junta in Myanmar ordered all basic education schools to open on June 1, over 300,000 teachers have been participating in the ongoing civil disobedience movement and only 25 percent of Myanmar’s more than 12 million students have begun the new school year. Just one week after the nationwide reopening, schools in seven townships in Sagaing Region and Chin State were also ordered to close after a spike in new cases. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, every country except Singapore has experienced partial school closures exceeding 100 days. The digital divide and inequality of access to the internet and other forms of educational technology also means students from rural and low-income communities will fall further behind as rising caseloads postpone the reopening of schools, exacerbating the remote learning gap.
Post-pandemic, the likelihood of children returning to school is closely tied to poverty and income levels. Data from the International Labor Organization (ILO) shows that a one percentage point increase in poverty can lead to a 0.7 percent increase in child labor in some countries, and the World Bank estimated that 110 to 124 million more people were pushed into extreme poverty by the end of 2020. One consequence of this has been increases in child labor and underage marriage. According to the ILO, 122 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 already work in the Asia Pacific, more than in any other part of the world. The United Nations found that child labor increased for the first time since 2000, accompanied by increases in exploitation and child trafficking. UNESCO estimates that 35 million children in the Asia-Pacific region dropped out of school during the pandemic, and development research shows that children in lower-income families are less likely to return to school the longer they are away.
School closures and economic hardship have also increased rates of underage marriage, with grim implications for the future of girls in the region. Young women who were forced to return to their villages due to the pandemic were most likely to be impacted by arranged marriages and unwanted pregnancies. Plan International found that 24,000 applications for underage marriage were submitted to Indonesia’s district and regional courts from January to June 2020, more than double the total number filed in 2012. Additionally, quarantine measures have decreased young women’s access to contraception. Indonesia’s National Population and Family Planning Board (BKKBN) reported in May 2020 that 10 percent of participants in its family planning program faced difficulties in accessing birth control. BKBBN estimated that delaying the average start of contraceptive use by even one month could increase the rate of pregnancies by 15 percent, or around 420,000 in total. In the Philippines, which has one of the lowest ages of consent in the world at 12 years old, more than 15 percent of girls are married before they turn 18 and UN experts warned that this rate could rise because of the pandemic. School closures have also disrupted girls’ reproductive health education, which could have a generational impact as girls who do not finish their schooling are less likely to prioritize their own daughters’ education.
Unwanted pregnancies, especially in families that cannot afford to care for a child, could exacerbate other ongoing health challenges faced by children in the region, including stunting and malnutrition. A 2020 study from the International Food Policy Research Institute conducted in Myanmar predicted that more than 111,000 children could become wasted—a severe form of malnutrition—from the pandemic’s combined economic and health impacts, leading to a higher rate of under-5 childhood mortality. The impact of stunting on long-term developmental outcomes has been extensively documented and can lead to impaired cognition and lower economic productivity. The United Nations has also warned of the pandemic’s adverse impact on food security and malnutrition, which impacts children most severely in their first 1,000 days.
With the Delta variant shown to be more transmissible among children, most of whom cannot yet be vaccinated, the impact of the new rise in cases in Southeast Asia is likely to be more serious than it currently appears. In Indonesia, the number of children contracting the virus has almost tripled since May and the child mortality rate has spiked during the most recent surge in cases. As governments look toward economic recovery, they should keep in mind that the impacts of Covid-19 on youth are multifaceted and interconnected. Although schools across the region have begun to partially reopen, curricula should be adapted to ensure that students recoup learning losses at their own pace. Governments could also consider offering cash incentives in their economic stimulus packages to keep children, especially girls, in school. With digital transformation accelerating during the pandemic, governments should continue strengthening telecommunications infrastructure to close the digital divide.
The cross-sectoral impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on youth should not be ignored. Recovery programs and packages should tackle these side effects expeditiously and simultaneously, or their future impact could be exponential.
Karen Lee is a former research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.