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Education and a pandemic

The writer heads an independent organisation dealing with education and development in Swat.

When a pandemic, conflict or natural disaster happens, education is particularly the first service halted and the last to be resumed. In response to the calamity, governments often rush to rescue populations by providing relief aid traditionally focused on the primary needs of food, water, protection and shelter. In this struggle, education is often neglected because for many it is still not a basic need.

Recently the armed conflicts in the Middle East and other parts of the world; the resultant forced displacement; prolonged crises and the climate change induced natural disasters have disrupted the education of over 75 million youth and children globally.

With the unprecedented spread of Covid-19, education has particularly been hit hard. A recent study, released on March 30 by Unesco, estimates that “87 percent of the world’s students – that is 1.5 billion learners – have been affected by school closures. The bulk of these students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools, but there are also millions of students affected at the pre-primary and tertiary education levels as more than 180 countries have shut school doors nationwide, while others have implemented localized school closures”.

Armed conflicts, disasters, pandemics and political unrest become more fatal to education in third world countries. For example, 20 million people, children and youth, were badly affected by the 2010 devastating floods in Pakistan that washed away homes and crops in one-fifth of the country. Similarly, the armed conflict in the Swat and Malakand divisions first hit the education infrastructure via bomb blasts, thereby restricting youth, especially girls, from going to schools. When the militants were being fought, the military was stationed mostly in schools and other educational institutions; this too kept the students away from schools for quite a long time. Schools across the Malakand division were closed and converted into temporary shelters for people during the floods in 2010 too.

Similarly, in the Middle East, at least 2.8 million Syrian children have been out of school for a long period during the last decade. In West Africa, five million children were out of school because of the Ebola epidemic that spread across the region in 2013. Afghan youth and children have been victims of an armed conflict for the last four decades, leaving four generations without education.

Because of the closure of schools all over the world, teaching and learning has mostly shifted online. Countries like Pakistan cannot do that on a mass level as more than 70 percent of its population live in rural areas; and access to internet or digital media in these areas is difficult and the majority of people cannot afford modern technology to benefit from such arrangements.

What many fear now is that in the post-Covid period, education will again be a casualty in terms of financing and development – especially in countries like Pakistan. This fear is not groundless as there are ample examples where education suffered most because of any emergency, conflict or political instability in Pakistan.

When Pakistan came under the direct control of the military in 1958, and remained under it till its dismemberment in 1971, the focus on education was merely rhetorical. Many ambitious plans and policies were papered with little implementation and follow up. For the five years, 1955—1960, the governments allocated only four percent to education while military expenditure reached 60 percent.

In the aftermath of the 1965 war with India, the focus was drastically shifted to defence while reducing spending on education further. During Z A Bhutto’s government, the education budget remained inadequate as well. Consequently, the focus once again shifted from social sector to defence by directing resources to strengthening and restructuring the army.

The military government under Gen Ziaul Haq joined with the US in combating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan through jihad. It consolidated its ties with the religious right for recruitments for the jihad, and to discredit its domestic opponents. Under this arrangement, the education sector experienced a drastic shift in the emphasis on jihad through a revised national curriculum and financial support to madressahs.

Though the Sixth Five-Year Plan (1983-1988) promised an aggressive push on primary education, with a budget of Rs7 billion, none of its targets was met during Ziaul Haq’s eleven-year rule. Previously, the Fifth Five-Year Plan (1978-1983), focused on adult literacy; it also met with the same fate with reaching out to only 40,000 adults instead of the target 8.5 million as projected in the plan.

After the so-called democratic transition in 1988, the education sector continued to suffer mainly because of the political instability and changing of governments. In 1988, Benazir Bhutto’s PPP government committed to raise the then 30 percent literacy rate to 90.5 percent in five years. It also signed the Education for All (EFA) Framework in 1990 at Jomtien in Thailand agreed upon by 155 countries, but the same year it was dismissed by the military before it could formulate an education policy.

In 1992, the government of Nawaz Sharif adopted an education policy which set the target of universal primary education to be met in 10 years. Along with free and compulsory primary education, the policy also set measures to improve the quality of public instruction. A gradual increase of the education budget was also promised from less than 1 to 3 percent of the GNP. The five-year plan, the 8th of its kind, from 1993 to 1998, also emphasised the need to remove gender and rural-urban imbalances.

The government also launched a World Bank funded Social Action Program (SAP) for social-sector development. Its goal was promotion of primary education with the participation of NGOs, private sectors and communities. This plan proposed co-education at the primary level with the provision of more female teachers in primary schools. This was to reduce gender disparities in access to education but none of these goals has ever been achieved as the Sharif government was dismissed by the intervention of the military.

The musical chairs in Pakistan’s politics once again changed and the PPP returned to power in 1993. The PPP government continued the education policy of its predecessor. Little was achieved before Benazir Bhutto was again dismissed by the president, acting at the military’s behest. In early 1997, the Pakistan Muslim League returned to power again. It envisaged a new Education Policy 1998-2010, which recognized: “Education is a basic human right. It is the commitment of the government to provide free secondary education to citizens”.

This new policy, too, failed to achieve its goals because of the bilateral and multilateral economic sanctions imposed on Pakistan in the wake of the May 1998 nuclear tests. The government was forced to curtail spending on the social sector, including education, instead of reducing the defence budget. The same year, in October 1999, Sharif was ousted by General Musharraf through a military coup and the country was once again under military rule.

Gen Musharraf joined the US in its ‘war on terror’ after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. During the Musharraf regime, the emphasis was on reforming madressahs and the curriculum of public-sector education. Under the 2002 Local Government Plan monitoring, evaluation, identifying need for new schools and funding for them were all delegated to an inexperienced district government that could not achieve any of the goals whereas reform in the curriculum was constantly stopped by the religious parties that were Musharraf’s allies as well.

Looking at the examples above, it is evident that political instability, wars with India, the Afghan Jihad, various conflicts and disasters, and the unending interference and intervention into politics are the main factors that have not only made our education system suffer financially but also divided it into parallel systems, catering to the needs of different social classes.

Given this chequered history of Pakistan mishandling education, one is rightly fearful that the post-Covid-19 period will once again see a major shift of finances from education to other sectors such as healthcare, industry and businesses. This is quite evident from the mitigation strategies, too.

The pandemic has a great lesson for Pakistan too. Despite major lockdowns, appeals for preventive measures such as physical distancing many Pakistanis do not follow any of the precautions, and many among them regard the pandemic as a kind of conspiracy against them and their faith.

One of the powerful mitigation strategies against any disaster, epidemic or conflict is to educate society with quality education on a mass level; and for this, the post-Covid-19 time demands we invest on education more rather than cut the already meagre spending.

Zubair Torwali, "Education and a pandemic," The News. 2020-04-30.
Keywords: Education , Education system , Natural disaster , Global crises , Education infrastructure , Online learning , Political instability , Social sector , Financial support