COVID-19 has disrupted students’ learning as a result of school closures; as highlighted by several education advocates who spoke at various panels during the recent AVPN 2020 Virtual conference. The worst-affected student is more likely to reside in a home with poor internet connectivity and accessibility, where their family members may have limited access to smartphones, electronic devices and affordable data subscription plans due to their household’s financial challenges. Whilst such challenges affect these students across rural and urban landscapes in all countries of varying degrees, panellists Safeena Husain (Educate Girls) and Erum Maniam (BRAC Institute of Education Development) shared anecdotal evidence from their respective work in rural India and Bangladesh that girls face a higher risk of dropping out of the system due to the traditional, gendered domestic roles being more accentuated over one’s academic studies.
Various other panellists shared about decisive actions taken by local governments, educators and social purpose organizations to mitigate the learning disruption such as ramping up of e-learning materials and provision of suitable devices. There was also a strong consensus amongst both attendees and panellists that the pandemic would exacerbate the learning gap for vulnerable children by more than a year. Nonetheless, the pandemic has accentuated the effects of the pre-existing digital divide in our education landscape, which require a medium to long-term investment by all stakeholders which otherwise threaten to undermine current socio-education innovations undertaken in recent years to close the gender and social gap in education.
As I followed the discussions, it seems odd that neither the speakers nor attendees did not address the root of the digital divide i.e. the urgent need to accelerate infrastructure development and device accessibility for affected communities. Impact capital has rightly supported capacity building of educators, curriculum development and girls’ outreach; such as the recently-completed Educate Girls Development Impact Bond (DIB) and the ongoing Quality Education India DIB. How might we involve infrastructure providers in prospective blended financing frameworks to close the digital divide, such as the telecommunications industry so that other divides in the social and education landscape can similarly be addressed successfully?
In my home country Singapore, 94% of the city-state’s 40,604 COVID-19 cases (as of 14 Jun) are migrant workers living in purpose-built dormitories. Singapore authorities gazetted several affected dormitories as isolation areas, where workers residing in these dormitories are confined to mitigate the virus spread. As a result, there has been an increased demand for digital services by affected workers. Singtel, a leading Singapore telecommunications company and AVPN member took the lead in offering complimentary mobile remittance services (through “Dash”, a mobile wallet) and a 30-day COVID-19 insurance protection for these workers. In addition, COVID Migrant Support Coalition, an informal group of migrant worker support groups included pre-paid cards in their assistance packages for these workers. While Singapore’s example does not directly address the COVID-19 induced digital divide at its core; it does provide a potential approach for both community organizations and telecommunications companies to be incorporated in strengthening digital infrastructure and access in partnership with governments and funders.
Hence, the COVID-19 pandemic underlies the urgent need to close the gap in digital infrastructure development and accessibility, which should be framed as an essential need similar to other basic needs. Stakeholders should consider curating financing and non-financing models to facilitate equitable access to digital technologies, which would go a long way in complementing and accelerating the progress of existing innovative interventions in the education, skills and gender arenas.
Zelig Dhi Lee is a Project Data Analyst at Dathappy