Universities are the key to pandemic recovery
“If I had dreamed of such a situation, I would have died,” says Aziza. “But now I have to tolerate it and wait hopelessly for what might happen.” (Her name has been changed to protect her livelihood.)
The COVID-19 pandemic officially reached Herat on 23 March via an individual from Qom province in neighbouring Iran. There may have been earlier cases, but little is known given frequent border crossings.
The pandemic has had a severe impact on the livelihood and subsistence of individuals, especially students and teachers in the country’s fragile education sector. And like in other developing countries, Afghanistan has limited resources to counter the public health threat and socio-economic disruption.
Access to quality education in Herat is now acute. With 19 districts, the province includes more than 1,000 villages and 1.8 million residents, with an additional 700,000 to one million internally displaced persons. The education sector in Herat is nearly paralysed given weak IT infrastructure, high cost and low speed internet services and modest e-learning systems.
Students and lecturers suffer from these conditions, which continue to worsen as the city is in quarantine.
Without effective systems in place, school and university closures are increasing learning inequalities and hurting vulnerable children and youth disproportionately, especially girls and women. To respond, inclusive quality education and the role of universities are critical to protect the socio-economic stability of Herat and throughout Afghanistan.
In a country where some 3.7 million children are already out of school and do not have regular access to primary education, COVID-19 increases the probability of permanent dropouts and affects children’s general well-being. The closure of schools exacerbates the burden of unpaid homecare responsibilities for young girls, who usually absorb the additional load of supervising other children in Afghanistan.
COVID-19 is quickly changing the context in which children live. Quarantine measures, school closures and restrictions on movement disrupt children’s routines and social support structures, while placing new stressors on parents and caregivers who may have to find new childcare options or forego work.
Stigma and discrimination related to COVID-19 make children more vulnerable to violence and psychosocial distress. Disease control measures that do not adequately consider the gender-specific needs and vulnerabilities of girls and women can increase risks and lead to negative coping mechanisms. UNESCO reports that violence, harassment and oppression against women and girls during every type of emergency tend to increase.
Women who are displaced, refugees and those living in conflict-affected areas are particularly vulnerable. Children and families who are already vulnerable due to socio-economic exclusion or those who live in overcrowded settings remain at risk. Supporting the role of teachers and university lecturers is critical as part of Herat’s social response network.
Internet, radio, TV and e-learning programmes are available as distance learning opportunities but remain expensive and are not considered equivalent to the growing quality of Herat’s public and private universities.
The government of Afghanistan launched online education for students, but they continue to struggle given slow internet speeds and electricity outages. These realities impact students who are already under pressure and now face exhaustion as well as growing mental health concerns.
Students throughout the city have a similar challenge ahead. The specific risks facing children and students include physical and emotional maltreatment, gender-based violence, mental health and psychosocial distress as well as specific child protection-related risks such as child labour, separation and social exclusion.
Herat province has a fragile economy and it depends on aid and tailored technical assistance from donors, much like Afghanistan as a whole. To overcome the impact of COVID-19, research on the extent of the local crisis and the response of NGOs and donors is critical – without meaningful action informed by valid research, such as needs assessments, emergency donations and coordinated cooperation, it will be difficult to cope with a worsening situation and recover.
In response and in coordination with the national and provincial government, the government has put together a plan to promote self-learning, small-group learning and distance learning, which draws not only on IT-enabled teaching and learning via television and mobile apps, but also on strong communities.
Literate parents, religious leaders and upper secondary school students are part of a growing network, including in hard-to-reach areas, who meet in open-air settings while observing physical distancing. Nevertheless, significant gaps remain.
For a peaceful and resilient community, ongoing research and development towards equitable access to quality education is key. Herat needs coordinated engagement to meet urgent needs – for infrastructure, for low-tech solutions around e-learning, faculty professional development and local economic development with government, donor, private sector, higher education institution and community engagement.
Herat needs locally available solutions and committed international partners. The world has much to gain from seeing the cultural province of Herat thrive by combatting the pandemic and making a better future for all. Aziza need not wait when there is hope.
Dr Abdullah Faiz is chancellor of Herat University, Afghanistan, Ali Mohammad Karimi is education and research consultant with Rayan Asr R&D Company and Dr Wesley Teter is senior consultant with UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education.