Indonesia’s demographic dividend threatened by lengthy COVID-19 school closures

JAKARTA/DENPASAR, Sept 17 (Reuters) – Ni Kadek Suriani was looking forward to starting her second year of junior high school last year, before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Then her parents lost their jobs and she was forced to help scratch a living on Indonesia’s holiday island of Bali.

“I had time selling tissues at traffic lights,” the 13-year-old, wearing a black Metallica T-shirt, recalled at the headquarters of local charity Bali Street Mums, which now sponsors her studies.

Experts say a pandemic-induced economic shock and closing of schools for more than a year has been devastating blow for many of Indonesia’s 68 million students.

It also threatens to undermine Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s plan to create a top-five global economy by 2045 driven by a skilled workforce.

“Indonesia had a major learning crisis prior to the pandemic, and our model indicates that it has gotten much worse,” Noah Yarrow, an education specialist at the World Bank and co-author of a report released on Friday, told Reuters.

“Children are learning much less than they should for a competitive globalised economy.”

Highlighting Indonesia’s shift from bad education outcomes to dreadful ones, a World Bank report released on Friday calculated the pandemic will leave more than 80% of 15-year-olds below the minimum reading proficiency level identified by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That’s a sharp rise from the 70% of students who could not reach the basic literacy benchmark in testing by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2018, which put Indonesia in the bottom 8% of 77 participating nations.

Before the pandemic, and despite going to school for more than 12 years, the average Indonesian student had effective learning for only 7.8 years, the World Bank said. That fell to 6.9 years by July this year according to the Bank’s most optimistic modelling.

The loss of learning during the pandemic will cost students at least $253 billion in lifetime earnings, the report estimated.

Indonesia’s education ministry acknowledged school closures had a “great impact on children’s learning results”.

“It is a global phenomenon, not only in Indonesia,” it said in a statement. “We are currently encouraging schools to start a limited face-to-face learning so that children will get back to school, interact with their teachers and friends, and have their spirit of learning rebuilt.”

DEMOGRAPHIC CURSE

Indonesian schools were closed for 55 weeks to August 4, compared with 25 weeks in Vietnam, 37 weeks in Japan and 57 weeks in the Philippines, according to World Bank data. Many schools remain closed in Indonesia, with the remainder open for limited hours.