FOURTEEN-year-old Devika Balakrishnan’s lifeless body was found near her home in Kerala, India, on Monday: the first day of her school semester. According to the police, a suicide note had been left behind, with her last words: “I’m going”. Her father, a daily wage earner, said she was disheartened after she was unable to participate in an online class with her peers. Under pressure to perform well in a competitive society, student suicides are tragically not uncommon in India. To make matters worse, ever since a countrywide lockdown was imposed to contain the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, schools have been shut down and classes are taught online. But modern technologies clearly have not reached everyone, and many students fear being left behind. Reportedly, Devika did not have access to television or a smartphone. Given the reality of such inequalities, particularly glaring in developing nations, there is genuine cause for concern that a large number of children will miss out on their education, further exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities within societies. While some universities in the West have decided to teach all their course material online, this is difficult to replicate in many other parts of the world.
In March, the UN reported that 166 countries around the world had shut down schools and universities in the wake of the pandemic, affecting some 87pc of the enrolled population. That same month, in Pakistan, hundreds of university students and instructors registered their complaints with the Pakistan Citizen Portal regarding problems they were having with their online classes, from the quality of the internet connection to the value of lectures. Just over 36pc of the population uses the internet, while accessibility is particularly pronounced in the rural and periphery regions such as former Fata, Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. The tribal districts, which have seen internet blockages in the recent past, have been particularly deprived of important services. The right to internet access has never seemed more urgent.
Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2020