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COVID issues cause educational and economic challenges for Asia and the Pacific

Global partners work together to provide leadership and assistance

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — As some schools in the U.S. go back to the virtual classroom and parents ponder whether to vaccinate their children, the lack of access to resources magnifies the challenges in Asia and other places around the world.

In a recent letter to supporters, Hery Ramambasoa, Presbyterian World Mission’s regional liaison for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, cited a study by Save The Children indicating nearly 800 children have died of the virus in Indonesia.

Online teaching is a challenge because many families cannot afford an internet connection. On average, four or five students share one computer. In large cities like Jakarta, schools have re-opened but the government asks parents and children to continue to be cautious. Businesses are eager to resume activities. Travel restrictions for tourists are being eased in hopes of filling the income gap that disrupted thousands of small and medium businesses.

Hery Ramambasoa serves as World Mission’s regional liaison for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

The Church Council in Indonesia (PGI) encourages its member churches to fully support the vaccination campaign. While Christians are a minority in the country, they are influential in some regions of Indonesia, according to Ramambasoa.

Churches are also helping combat the misinformation about the vaccines. The organization’s general secretary, Pastor Gomar Gultom, has called on the government to improve the information process about the virus and the vaccination campaign, especially for isolated communities in remote areas.

In the Philippines, a UNESCO analysis reports that most schools were closed 20 months, leaving 27 million students without access to education. Worse yet, for children and teenagers from some families, school was the only place to get nutritional meals and routine healthcare.

The Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) operates 26 private schools with more than 60,000 children enrolled, but most are closed now. COVID-19 is unpredictable and has spread quickly among students who then transmit the virus to families and communities. In rural and poor areas, it is uncertain when schools may re-open.

This 2017 photo depicts a classroom in the Bamrung Wittaya School, a private school operated by the Christian Church in Thailand, a Presbyterian Mission Agency global partner. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

Throughout Asia, at the beginning of the crisis, 128 million children were already out of school Ramambasoa said. Some CCT schools have regularly come to the aid of small schools in rural or isolated areas.

While the pandemic raged in other countries, Pacific Islanders were impassive. It didn’t take long for it to finally catch up. In addition to educational challenges, it also started a cascade of economic problems, since many of those islands count on dollars generated by tourism. Several major airlines abruptly halted flights to some of the small island nations.

Before the global pandemic began in March 2020, the Pacific island nation of Fiji had experienced 10 consecutive years of economic growth. (iStock photo)

Prior to the pandemic, Ramambasoa, who is based in the region, said that Fiji had experienced 10 consecutive years of growth, to the point that the annual influx of tourists outnumbered the inhabitants. When the pandemic hit, more than half of the unskilled laborers in tourism-related jobs were furloughed. The pandemic has compelled churches in the Pacific that are leaders in their communities to rethink the dependencies on traditional economic sources such as tourism.

In his role as regional liaison for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Ramambasoa facilitates and seeks to strengthen healthy relationships among entities of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and those of partner denominations and organizations in the region. He also supports fellow PC(USA) mission personnel serving in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Previously, Ramambasoa worked with long-time global partner, FJKM, the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar. He sees many parallels among the two regions, including economic disparities, rampant poverty and climate change.

With its partners, he sees opportunities for the Church and larger community to work together to “identify, reinforce and multiply projects that promote mutual understanding.”

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