AMONG the many functioning systems that the coronavirus has brought to a grinding halt, schooling and education have been dealt a major blow which will have a long-term impact on millions of students. All over the world, the threat from Covid-19 has forced governments to postpone exams and close down schools, colleges and universities for fear that young people, though generally more resilient to the effects of the infection, can still be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. In the case of younger children attending primary school, the practices of social distancing, avoiding contact and wearing masks would be nearly impossible to enforce, so the case for authorities to close them is even stronger. In developed countries like the UK and US, as well as some institutions in Pakistan, school administrations have tried to adjust to the ‘stay-at-home’ period with online lessons and virtual classes. But for the majority of children in developing countries across Asia and Africa, structural inequalities makes this new normal of digital learning a huge challenge.
In Pakistan, limited access to technology means that millions of students who cannot hop online will be left out. Due to low internet penetration and a lack of hardware and software tools, children attending schools in low-income communities will simply not have remote-learning options. To make matters worse, the lockdown-induced economic meltdown will increase the pressure on low-income households, where parents will be forced to choose between sending children to school or to earn. Pakistan already has many challenges when it comes to keeping children in school. With an already unacceptably high dropout rate, in the post-Covid-19 era, education will be one of the first casualties in families who have limited resources. Tragically, in this grim economic period, women and girl children will be at a greater disadvantage. Studies have predicted that, as a result of the gendered difference in educational attainment, a loss of even six months of education as a result of Covid-19 will have a proportionally greater impact on girls in low- and lower-middle-income countries.
These are compelling reasons for the government to make an all-out effort to limit the damage to students. The centre and the provinces have to come up with a practical plan of enforceable action centred on opening up different channels of learning. The government must look at local citizen-funded start-ups that have successfully piloted educational models in low-income communities. With input from stakeholders and education innovators, these models can be replicated at a provincial and national level. Millions of children in the country are already suffering due to low investment in the education sector, for which we are paying a heavy price. Authorities ought to act fast, as it is not just Covid-19 that has to be battled. Alongside the fight against the spread of the pandemic there are myriad other battles, not least among them education.
RELIGION is central to the identity of the vast majority of Pakistanis, regardless of which faith or sect they belong to. But while the principle of freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution, contradictions abound, and Pakistan’s minorities often live under a cloud of fear and insecurity, particularly if they belong to disadvantaged classes or castes, or are continuously scapegoated and demonised by the powerful. Instead of receiving protection, vulnerable groups are ignored or thrown under the bus, over and over again, as they navigate layers of systemic discrimination and deeply rooted cultural biases, making some feel like lesser citizens in their country of birth. To ensure minorities receive their due rights and protections, the cabinet recently approved the reconstitution of the National Commission for Minorities, but the move has already met with a series of setbacks and controversies. First, the federal government withdrew the decision to include Ahmadis in the list of religious minorities — a decision vociferously defended by the minister for religious affairs — further denying the community any form of representation. In a country where people define themselves (and others) by their religious beliefs, where does this leave an already marginalised community? What exactly is their status?
Then, in a five-page report to the Supreme Court, the one-man commission of Dr Shoaib Suddle detailed further obstacles created by the Ministry of Religious Affairs in the setting up of the NMC. The problems surrounding the formation of the body simply reflects how far we are from becoming a truly equitable society in letter and spirit. While we rightfully condemn the cruel treatment that minorities — particularly Muslim minorities — in many other parts of the world are subjected to, we turn a blind eye to the abuse taking place under our watch or go into denial and get defensive about our own poor track record. The father of this nation said that religion is not the business of the state, but throughout Pakistan’s history, the state has made religion its business at every turn. Unfortunately, to distract from their failings and weaknesses, or to fulfil their own strategic and worldly ambitions, the powerful make opportunistic choices, while the ‘silent majority’ unthinkingly become accomplices to oppression. If nobody stands up for what is right, or wants for others the same freedom and security they seek for themselves, we will keep spiralling down a very dangerous path.