When the government announced a two-week lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, I was working as a primary school teacher in an understaffed school. I bid adieu to a group of excited students who were glad to get some time off from school during the hot days of late March.
Those were the early days of the pandemic. Most people had little idea about the magnitude of the disease and the implications it could have on their lives. I was one of them. However, despite the uncertainty, my students and I embraced virtual methods of learning with great gusto. The participation rate was high, and almost all students engaged actively.
The initial excitement quickly dissipated when the two-week lockdown stretched to a month, and the number of students attending the virtual sessions fell drastically. I found out the reasons behind the fall in attendance when I made phone calls to their families—many of the parents had been laid off, their ration and savings were drying up, and they could no longer afford to pay for internet services. Moreover, many of the students and their families had gone back to their villages and could not be reached.
I put my teaching duties on hold to try and help the students and their families. I spent weeks connecting them with those who could give them food. I tried my best to support anxious parents and children. While the short-term goal was to secure the basic necessities for affected families, my colleagues and I had another worry looming over us—the long-term impact of the pandemic on the lives of our students and their families.
We feared that the pandemic would hit school education hard, increasing the number of out-of-school children in India drastically. V.P. Niranjanaradhya, a Senior Fellow and the Programme Head of the Universalization of Equitable Quality Education Programme at the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru, estimates this number to be around 60 million by the end of 2020.
My experience in the education sector tells me that an increase in school dropout rates will lead to an increase in incidences of child labor and underage marriage. Without a chance to complete their education, children will face a higher risk of leading a life in poverty. Children from economically marginalized societies who choose to go back to school post-pandemic will struggle with learning gaps.
Unemployment stemming from the pandemic is another cause for worry. A report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) found that around 21 million salaried employees lost their jobs between April and August this year. These layoffs might lead to an increase in school dropouts, as parents will not be able to bear the costs of sending their children to school.
Furthermore, an increase in the unemployment rate has implications that go beyond the loss of financial security. People who are unemployed for long periods tend to be perpetrators of domestic violence and victims of alcoholism and substance abuse.
These issues were present even before the pandemic hit. The pandemic has, however, intensified them to an extent where it has undone precious progress made by professionals in the development sector. In a post-COVID world, development professionals will have to attend to and prepare for two important jobs—one will be to redress the devastation caused by the pandemic and the other will be to create a world that operates on universal values and runs sustainably.
The upside of the pandemic is that there is more awareness now about certain systemic flaws. This increased awareness will provide the added support that development professionals require to further their work in the field and lead change in a post-COVID world. Here’s hoping that this pandemic gives rise to a new renaissance led by development professionals, who steer us towards an equal and just society.
Arpita Sur is doing a Postgraduate Program in Development Management at the Indian School of Development Management (ISDM). She is one of a group of 37 ISDM students who recently took eight Harappa courses. This blog on the role development professionals will play in a post-COVID world was part of an assignment for a communication course.
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