Before the emergence of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic globally, and in Africa, there were already signs that inequalities of all forms are widening, and systems are becoming more exclusive with each passing day. In a vicious and cyclic manner, these inequalities and exclusions are further entrenching millions into poverty. In spite of all the intentions and efforts, people are being left behind, and the children of the global poor are receiving low-quality education, if any at all. The novel nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has presented many governments with new challenges for which they are ill-prepared in all sectors, including education. As countries join hands to flatten the curve – what can citizens do to lessen the impacts of the virus on human and social life? Can they do anything at all? Are the efforts and alternatives fostered going to be inclusive and, indeed, leave no one behind?
Using the education sector as a classic example, the efforts and alternatives promoted by governments to reduce the spread of the virus, while logical, are unfortunately not all inclusive. In the wake of COVID-19, many countries, including Zimbabwe, rightly decided to close all educational institutions, and remote learning has become the sole and sensible alternative. Teaching has moved online – a space where not everyone can afford to be plugged in. In Zimbabwe, TV and radio lessons were proposed. However, this is impractical due to structural impediments, such as power cuts and connectivity constraints. As schools and families work towards ensuring continued education for their learners and children during COVID-19 emergency measures, the sad reality is that the proposed options remain beyond the reach of many. Sadly, for these children, they will be left behind in a world hellbent on reducing inequalities of all forms and not leaving anyone behind!
I live in a high-density suburb of Mbizo in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe. The majority of the people in this neighbourhood ply their trades in the informal economy, where most are either vendors or illegal artisanal miners. The few who are formally employed can be categorised as the working poor, since they are precariously employed and receive far less than a living wage. Therefore, the pandemic has adversely affected their livelihoods, and for most the struggle has been just as much about putting food on the table and surviving the day as it has been about staying safe and healthy. E-learning therefore continues to not be feasible for many, due to the exorbitant cost of data and the lack of gadgets required. With private tutoring – commonly known as extra lessons – costing an average of US$10 per month, this is also beyond the reach of many in this neighbourhood.
Homeschooling is somewhat of a possibility, but most parents have neither the time, capacity nor resources for it. For parents who fight a daily, turbulent and persistent struggle with poverty, it is highly probable that their children will be left behind as the world explores and takes up new learning platforms and possibilities. What can the community do to ensure that children from vulnerable families continue to get an education during the crisis, similar to their privileged counterparts?
It turns out that the community can do something. The community has been collectively homeschooling its children for weeks now. Community members have taken stock of children who cannot plug into e-learning platforms, as well as the human capital we have in our community – teachers and those who can teach. Through innovative thinking and community solidarity, we have devised a way where learners can receive education in a safe manner.
Community members have volunteered spaces where learning and teaching can take place. In this arrangement, no class has more than eight learners, as social distancing is observed, and the washing points and sanitizers were sourced through funds pooled together. Local women have made cloth masks for the children, and wearing them at all times is a must during the lessons. Volunteers take the children through various subjects in line with the national curriculum, under the watchful guidance of qualified teachers who are part of the community. What started as an idea for 38 children from one street with six volunteers has expanded to three other streets, staffed by a total of 18 volunteers. A total of 112 children, who otherwise would have been excluded from the proffered alternatives during the COVID-19-induced lockdown, are getting an education against all odds. Our community is confident that our intervention comes close to perfect in ensuring good health and safety, and that no child is left behind regarding access to education.
As I explained in an earlier blog, which details how the project evolved from a mere idea, community cohesion and solutions are critical in responding to the adverse negative impacts of COVID-19 on our daily lives. National and community leadership has to rise to the occasion and innovate with interventions that aim to protect the vulnerable and reduce all forms of inequality. Given the reality of poverty, among other challenges, resources, time, capacities and expertise can be pooled among ordinary citizens and communities to ensure that no one is left behind in education and other facets of life.