COVID: A complex crisis that has magnified existing vulnerabilities in Nepal

By Priyadarshani Joshi, GEM Report

The current situation is one of a combined health, economic and political emergency

In Nepal, a country where hundreds of thousands receive higher education abroad, the first two confirmed COVID cases were linked to higher education related movements – the first case was a student travelling back from Wuhan (in January); and the second case was a student returning home from France (March 23). Nepal has been in a country wide, fairly strict lockdown since March 24. As of the time of this blog publication, the country is in the midst of an upwards swing – there have been 6211 confirmed cases, and nineteen deaths.

Given its strong reliance on internal and international migrant remittances, the economic crisis has been and will be far-reaching. The Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that GDP growth will drop substantially from 7.1% in 2018/19. There have been several fiscal policy responses – the government has declared that health spending and informal sector workers compensation will be prioritized. There has already been a large external financial response – including $214 million from the IMF rapid credit facility and a $29 million package from the World Bank.

As in neighbouring India, the COVID crisis has laid bare societal inequality and fractures, and the difficulties particularly experienced by internal migrants. There has been an increase in tensions and the porous border has also been blamed for the increase in COVID cases.

The education sector consequences of this multi-faceted emergency will require both a short-term and long-term strategy.

COVID-related education impacts and strategies

The first, immediate effect of the lockdown was the postponement of high-stakes examinations for grades 10 through 12. The COVID-19 Education Cluster Contingency Plan 2020, developed in March, laid out three scenarios of dropouts for early childhood through grade 12. Out of a total affected population of 8.1 million students, the analysis estimates that there are 2.4 million children without access to media, and almost 1 million can be classified as the most vulnerable or at risk.

The cost for preventive activities was estimated at $28.8 million, with a funding gap of $14.5 million. Some key activities that required substantial additional funding included those that may affect the poorest the most – such as lack of food, availability and access to print material, and strategies to accelerate learning or ensure a targeted welcome to those most at risk.

Source: Based on Table 3.2, COVID-19 Education Cluster Contingency Plan 2020.

The Nepal COVID preparedness and priority response plan released in April noted that the education sector response plan will be executed with government leadership from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) and the Center for Education and Human Resource Development (CEHRD), with the involvement of lead international agencies – UNICEF and Save the Children; and other members of the education cluster.

A budget review mission involving government and a host of development partners was completed on May 20 linked to assessing COVID impacts on the School Sector Development Program, the government’s main education development strategy. Finally, the Nepal budget was released on May 28, 2020, which recognized the COVID crisis and its disruptions. In education, some highlighted discussions specific to COVID were the development of virtual classes, online education and television and radio programming; and a focus on student health and well-being. In addition, the plan is to scale up the school meal program – reaching primary levels – so that it reaches nationwide. Early prognosis has argued that the budget is not adequately forward looking – since it does not have a strong plan in place for dealing with the returning migrants, or the massive food crisis that could be forthcoming with major employment losses.

The digital divide in accessing digital materials

The CEHRD has developed a learning portal, with learning materials available in English and Nepali for students from early grades through 10th grade, to help continue their education. While a commendable and rapid effort by implementation partners, the digital divide will be the key challenge that limits the usage of such materials. Recent media reporting has also highlighted the wide digital disparity in access to online teaching and learning capacities, which has led to schools in some districts stopping online learning for fear of exacerbating disparities.

Magnifying existing regional inequality

Helen Sherpa, Country Director of World Education Nepal, an education cluster member and implementation partner which works with the most marginalized children and youth in the country, highlighted that Nepal had a lot of lessons to build on from the 2015 earthquake emergency response. As an unprecedented natural disaster, it taught the education cluster how to respond at a massive scale and mobilise teachers, NGOs and infrastructural support.

However, she also noted the ways in which COVID is different – as a nationwide and very different kind of challenge, which can magnify disadvantages in specific ways. She highlighted that improving connectivity and online materials can only be one part of a comprehensive, creative set of solutions, including radio, TV, and accelerated and flexible learning approaches. She especially called into attention the regional inequalities in poverty and disadvantage within Nepal.

Province 2, which borders India, contains almost a fifth of the population; and every second person is multidimensionally poor, especially on education access and school attendance. This region will face major challenges in ensuring learning continuity: the delivery and use of print-based learning materials at home and guides for parents and teachers to support their children’s learning will be an uphill battle given the major logistical challenges, lower literacy rates, and long-term girls’ education disadvantages.

Furthermore, with regards to school reopening, teachers fear for their health and survival. In the overcrowded Province 2, in 2018/19, public school student-teacher ratios (STR) are the highest for all grade levels – and almost double the national average at 96 students per approved teacher position for grades 6 to 8. If the economic crisis reduces private school (labelled institutional schools in Nepal) viability, then those students might also shift and further crowd into the public schools.

Therefore, social distancing within the existing classroom infrastructure is simply not a possibility. Coupled with the decentralised management of teachers, as a result of which a significant number of teachers are employed at lower wages in contractual or community hired positions, there is concern that there will be a massive teacher shortfall to successfully reopen schools.

Source: 2018/19 Flash I Report 2075, Ministry of Education, Sport and Technology.

As a health crisis that has not been encountered before, there will be some specificities that make this a unique challenge – teacher and community outreach will be needed to dispel myths and inculcate behavioural changes; and truly develop a whole school approach where learning at home becomes a stronger part of the education routine. However, several challenges exist – preparing schools to cope with the challenge will require an immense flux of financing that are adequately distributed by priority areas; which will be challenging given the upcoming revenue decline. Difficult choices will need to be made if we don’t want to experience widening gaps and lose the gains so industriously built over the last decades.


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