Inequality and the pandemic

Updated 16 Jun 2020


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

IN a piece published on last week, distinguished academics Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das, and Benjamin Daniels revealed the long-term health and educational impact on children who lived through the October 2005 earthquake in the north of the country. The results make for grim reading. As they report, “children close to the fault line who were in utero at the time of the earthquake are three centimetres shorter than those who lived farther away, and although this disadvantage narrows for children who were older, it does not disappear unless they were three years or older at the time of the earthquake.”

On educational outcomes, the research is similarly worrying: “at every age, children who lived closer to the fault line were doing worse than those who lived farther away. These gaps were large and represented the learning-equivalent of around two years of schooling (or 0.4 SD) on average at all schoolgoing ages. Consequently, a child who was in Grade 4 and living close to the earthquake scored as well on our tests as a child living far from the earthquake in Grade 2.”

The piece is couched within a broader discussion of the adverse long-term consequences of major crises, such as an earthquake or a pandemic. Damage to physical infrastructure and economic growth are usually the first two things that states identify and attempt to fix. Other outcomes, those that are less obvious, such as health and educational impact, tend to slip below the radar of state visibility and thus may go unaddressed.

How this pandemic will impact life and society beyond headline economic growth outcomes is unclear at this point. Unlike an earthquake, there is no demarcated area and fault line that can be leveraged to compare differential consequences in issues like health, education, infrastructure and livelihoods. The consequences are both global, and profoundly localised and contingent on unknown variables simultaneously.

Covid-19, contrary to being some great leveller, actually magnifies some distinctions.

However, there are some axes of differentiation that are already becoming visible. Access to health facilities, testing, and isolation is unequally distributed based on geography and social class status. This is the immediate public health concern that states the world over are attempting to address. From a longer-term perspective, the nature of recovery for corona-afflicted patients is also going to be different based on location and socioeconomic status. That too poses another challenge for states committed to egalitarian outcomes.

In the educational space, I already see several axes of differentiation that will have profound consequences for inequality of opportunity and labour market outcomes. This has also been echoed by Dr Faisal Bari in several of his pieces already. The starkest is the switch to different modes of remote instruction, which will compound pre-existing differences within the educational space.

We know from labour market data that the most coveted jobs (formal sector, stable income, with clear pathways for upward mobility) fall to a small section of the highly credentialled population. Credentials, in turn, are attained through educational performance and attendance in elite universities and schools, which in turn are linked to household socioeconomic conditions. Simply put, children from richer households can afford to go to better schools, attain better out-of-school coaching and skills, attend better universities, and earn more in the labour market.

The pandemic, contrary to being some great leveller, actually magnifies some of these distinctions. In fact, it even shuts off the few sources of mobility that exist at various tiers in a heavily stratified system in the first place.

The stratification produced by educational credentials (‘O’-/‘A’-level vs Matric) is already very stark. Yet in the recent two decades some middle-class households have shifted their budgetary priorities to send their children to slightly less costly schools that offer the ‘O’-/‘A’-level curriculum in a bid to bridge this gap and provide improved opportunities.

With the future of examinations (and its associated uniform credential) uncertain, the pandemic will amplify differences in teaching quality and methods that exist across schools on the basis of their cost differences. Expensive schools who cater to children from high-income households are adapting using technological innovation to persist with various types of learning. On the other hand, under-resourced schools will struggle to match these efforts, given the budgetary constraints they and their clients face. So even if the credential both sets of schools are offering was historically the same, new requirements of learning and examination will accentuate the differences in outcomes for students even more.

The dynamic becomes even starker at the higher education level, where gender, geographic/spatial, and socioeconomic background all becomes axes of differentiation. A student who made it to an elite public or private sector university by putting in extra effort now may find him or herself at a disadvantage simply because of their domestic circumstances. They might live in a location with patchy internet access (as is the case with many students in KP’s merged areas or Balochistan), or might not have ICT hardware at home.

For female students, the demands of household work might cut into the time they have for learning. In fact, survey data from a number of countries has already shown the strongly gendered consequences of working and learning from home, with women having to juggle far more responsibilities (such as child care, patient care, and household labour) than men within the same household.

The long-term consequence of these divergences will be visible in the way they map onto labour market outcomes. Those with resources already have a head start over those who do not. This head start becomes amplified through the way people adapt (or fail to adapt) to the pandemic itself. A society that is already so heavily stratified in terms of opportunities for socioeconomic mobility will now have to confront this new and multifaceted challenge as well.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2020