COVID-19 has impacted us all. From personal isolation to affecting our health and well-being to changing the way we work and live, Pakistan has seen it all.
Beyond the need to normalise lives while social distancing, the necessity to work using remote technology is both a challenge and an opportunity for industry, educationists and policymakers. While increased local adoption of technology continues to drive change and innovation, it is also helping create an invisible but unavoidable and major divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. If not identified and addressed, it will increase inequalities in terms of losses in earnings as well as lifetime opportunities — because some individuals will have access to, and knowledge of, simple technology while others will not.
Even for small communities, connectivity is essential.
In the face of Covid-19, service industry appears to be the one transforming most rapidly — adopting remote working and developing new methods of customer-centric service provision. General Electric was one of the few organisations operating in Pakistan that had truly embraced remote working pre-Covid. Now large oil and gas service providers such as INTECH are also exploring extended remote service provision. Financial and educational service provision is maturing by leaps and bounds. This response is a testament to not only Pakistanis’ extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness but also to the quality of manpower and leadership in these sectors.
Having said that, these successes flow from the top five per cent at best. What happens (or does not happen) within, say, the bottom 50pc will create huge inequalities in terms of opportunities, income generation, growth and employment that will likely impact the generations to come. With 64pc of our population under the age of 30, that cannot be good news.
Take the education sector which has been one of the most highly impacted service sectors since the virus struck. The massive change in operational dynamics forced public-sector primary and secondary schools (in the absence of quick tech solutions) to adopt policies such as inviting 50pc of the students to school premises on any given day.
Learning via flexible teaching methods took place in small private schools that were able to offer limited recorded or online classes. A driven young private school instructor explained to me how, due to bandwidth constraints, she pre-recorded audio classes and used the ‘online’ session for dealing with queries through audio. Depending on how many students were able to join a live session, she would either conduct the class taking questions through text or audio or a hold a pre-recorded audio class only.
Top-tier institutions such as Lums invested heavily in faculty development, technology adoption as well as service provision for student support. Innovative ideas including technologically equipped outdoor classrooms and various modalities of engagement with the learners were adopted.
However, all these stories still come from the privileged few. The majority of students in primary, secondary and tertiary education in Pakistan will not be able to engage through any such distance-learning models in the short run.
The shift consequently impacts quality of education and employability. Not everyone has access to telephony infrastructure, devices and the ability to use smart devices, and so cannot reap the benefits. During a research study of a novel, decentralised, local renewable energy system in district Khushab, Punjab, for example, we realised that while there were social benefits, the locals had not been able to entirely reap the expected economic benefits from access to cheap renewable energy; a primary reason we identified was inaccessibility to mobile/data services in the area. Even for small communities to prosper, we found, connectivity was essential.
Mobile/internet penetration therefore is important, and we do not fare badly.
With 169 million cellular subscribers in Pakistan (a good 80pc teledensity, or thenumber of telephone connections per 100 individuals) of which 85m subscribe to 3G/4G, 87m to broadband (40.1pc penetration), cellular penetration is decent. Data and telephony services are relatively affordable but smartphones have some issues of gendered use. This is certainly something policymakers can look into.
We are, arguably, at the gateway of a great opportunity of integrating our educational and technological and industrial policies so that the Covid-induced crisis becomes our means to solving our wider developmental challenges. Conversely, if we do not have the foresight this requires, we would remain on the brink of a tragedy of inequalities and a generation of yet another type of ‘have-nots’ in Pakistan. No one must be left behind as we move to fulfil our UN-SDG commitments.
The writer is director of the Centre for Business and Society at Lums.
Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2021