The Covid pandemic and our forgotten children

At a time of crisis, girls are regarded as a liability and married off. As the economy declines with lockdowns, more boys will enter the labour market.

Published: 22nd May 2021 12:24 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd May 2021 01:15 AM   |  A+A-

Adoption, orphan

For representational purposes

I recently interviewed a woman who had a 13-year-old daughter. “Who looks after your child when you go to work?” I asked. “I have married her off,” was the answer. “Why?” “I can’t leave a girl alone at home. I can’t stay with her either. I have to work. We need the money,” she said. I saw a woman loading rubbish in a truck along with her 10-year-old son. “Why is he working?” I asked. “He runs wild at home. The school is closed and I have no place to leave him,” she replied. These incidents happened in Chennai. Thousands of girls have been married off in South India in 2020. Can you imagine what is happening in the North and in our villages?

Covid-19 has damaged the lives of children irreparably, reversing decades of progress in schooling and in preventing child marriage and child labour. It has also brought into focus the sharp contrast between the haves and have-nots. The haves, with laptops, iPads, tablets, smart phones and educated parents, received good online education in 2020. Those without electronic aids received nothing. We run free schools for very poor children. We gave them textbooks and notebooks and asked them to follow the government’s Kalvi (Education) TV. Unfortunately, without educated parents, the children could not follow it and dropped out, thereby re-establishing the importance of the teacher.

Online education cannot substitute the school or teacher. Children learn more than the 3Rs in school. They learn to socialise, play games, celebrate national days and festivals together, and make friends, who are an essential part of their emotional lives.

At a time of crisis, girls are regarded as a liability and married off. They will never return to school. As the economy declines with increasing lockdowns and poverty, more boys will enter the labour market, notwithstanding laws against employing children below 14. They, too, will never return to school. Our national figures for literacy and education will dip sharply. Children at home means that women cannot go to work, resulting in economic disparity among the genders. Among the poorest in our society, the solution is to marry off girls and send boys to work.

Online education is not a permanent option. For one thing, it is expensive, requiring investment in high-priced laptops, Wi-Fi and e-platforms, smart phones to film each teacher, and scanners to scan pages for projection. All this, along with the monthly salaries of teachers, makes it expensive. Constant gazing at a laptop is bad for a child’s eyes, however short the duration, and divorces the child from the teacher. Teachers are not trained in this pedagogy. Indian teachers stand, walk and use the blackboard. Sitting at home with a laptop is not conducive to effective teaching. It precludes sports and other physical activities, which are essential for a child’s well-being. Inadequate exposure to sunlight leads to vitamin D deficiency. Indiscipline, addiction to online games and losing interest in studies are other problems. Lack of access to and unfamiliarity with electronic devices and the lack of educated home supervision in the absence of a teacher means the socio-economically disadvantaged fall far behind. Internet networks are not infallible. Online assessments are a farce. How do you assess primary school children who can barely write, while older children copy from textbooks to submit a perfect answer paper? All this and worse happened in 2020.

Standard 10 exams were cancelled, proving that they are a waste of time. The old system of 11 standards plus four years of college meant the children could choose their subjects in Class 9 in consultation with their teachers, instead of writing a nerve-wracking 10-subject exam in Standard 10. Why can our education experts not learn from their mistakes and, instead of burdening the children through their best years, cut it down to a single final exam in Class 11 or 12?

The year 2020 was disastrous as all schools remained shut. We cannot permit it to be repeated in 2021. I have a few ideas on how to avoid another bad year for our children.

Firstly, every teacher, parent and non-teaching school staff should be compulsorily vaccinated, breaking the queue, age bar and ignoring the CoWin app. Those who are not vaccinated or who refuse it should stay at home. Classes should be broken up into not more than 20 children per section, in two shifts if necessary (presuming that the average class number is 40), although schools with larger numbers must break them up further. Children should be given the influenza and pneumococcal vaccines, something that is recommended but rarely done in India. While these vaccines may not prevent Covid-19, they mitigate its ill-effects. Parents without private transport should move their children to a neighbourhood school that will not require travel by bus, a major source of infection. Every ward or panchayat has a large community hall that could be converted into a makeshift school. To avoid physical contact, physical education could be restricted to non-contact games like badminton, table tennis and stand-alone physical exercises. Finally, we must develop a Covid vaccine for children—from babies to age 18. I am sure many others have better ideas. Let each state government ask for ideas and implement the best.

Many schools in Covid-affected Europe have reopened with smaller classes and strict observance of protocols. We have to open our schools to prevent more girls being married off and boys sent to work. In 2020, we forgot our children as we battled the pandemic. We are in danger of repeating that mistake in 2021. Nobody is talking about our children.

Nanditha Krishna, Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai.



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