Reflections on the COVID-19 second wave in India

By Chandni Jain and Priyadarshani Joshi, GEM Report

Far worse than the first one, the second wave of Covid-19 in India devastated the country, and made national and international headlines. Neighbouring countries especially Nepal – with which it shares an open border – also saw a spiralling in the number of cases and deaths. After a post-first wave lull in cases, a slew of political and religious events with mass gatherings were organized. The combination of a slow vaccination rollout, deadly virus mutations, and a rise in misinformation exposed the frailty of the country’s health, social and governance infrastructures. This slew of developments led to an unprecedented situation – at its peak, there were over 400,000 cases per day in India, the highest record in any country.

Figure 1: Unprecedented escalation of daily Covid-19 cases during the second wave in India since the start of the pandemic (Johns Hopkins University CSSE COVID-19 Data, 2021)

Estimates from the first wave were already showing that the pandemic disproportionately affects the poor. Since the pandemic began in 2020, the number of people with incomes of $2 or less a day is estimated to have increased by 75 million in India. This means that India alone will account for nearly 60% of the global increase in poverty in 2020. This will only rise with the second wave.

This crisis has exposed the lack of system resilience, especially harming the poor, and the short and long-term education effects will be devastating. It has also highlighted the challenge of misinformation and the importance of critical thinking skills (for young people and adults) if we are ever to return to a ‘new normal’.

Education systems and indicators are substantially affected

The pandemic has had serious implications for all aspects of the education sector, particularly affecting teachers, children from low-income households, and the viability of low-fee private schools.

Teachers have had to bear a dramatic burden in this pandemic.

It has impacted the teaching-learning progress in all schools due to the shift to remote learning. Ms. Chandra Prabha Bhatia, a government school (Kendriya Vidyalaya) teacher from Kolkata, interviewed for this blog summarizes the impact on the education sector and the teacher job:

“Many of our students could not attend classes citing reasons such as ‘exhausting their daily internet packs’, ‘having to share devices with siblings’ or ‘parents taking the shared devices to their workplaces’. Some parents of first-generational learners think that remote teaching is not useful while some other are finding it difficult to help their children with schoolwork.

Hats-off to school teachers who have learnt to adapt to remote teaching almost overnight and many did so without any previous training!

I believe that we have helped maintain continuity in education, even if that means that I have had to receive and send pages and pages of children’s work over Whatsapp.”

In more devastating news, in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh,  teachers were forced to participate in local elections conducted in April 2021 that resulted in the death of over 1600 teachers and support staff on poll-duty from Covid-19. The teaching-politician nexus is well-known in India. While there is a history of strong teacher unions, teachers also need to remain in the good books of politicians for lucrative transfers and promotions. Thus, if teachers are deputed by the Election Commission for poll-duty, refusal to do so can have repercussions on their career.

Covid-19 related school closures have had disproportionate and multifaceted effects on children from low-income households. Only 8% of Indian households with members aged between 5 and 24 have access to both internet connectivity and digital devices. The resulting learning losses have been profound as measured by a study covering 16,067 children in public schools across 5 Indian states. The results showed that 92% of children have lost at least one specific language ability, while 82% of them lost at least one specific mathematical ability as compared to the previous year across all classes.

The pandemic has also brought into question the sustainability of private schools, that cater to more than 50% of the Indian school going student population. Amongst them, low fee private schools are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain themselves financially as parents fail to pay fees on time, students transfer to public schools, and governments slash reimbursements linked to the Right to Education Act stipulations. A study conducted across 246 school leaders across 20 states in India revealed that 55% of teachers across private schools faced a reduction in salary during the lockdown while schools have faced a revenue dip from 20 to 50%.

The COVID-19 “infodemic” has to be dealt with seriously

Even though the second wave subsided, a third wave is imminent. As governments plan to open schools and a return to normal, it is imperative to encourage the adoption of Covid-19 appropriate protocols and counter vaccine hesitancy. However, the rise of misinformation in India continues to pose a threat.

A paradigm shift in the communication infrastructure, penetration of social media, lack of digital literacy and inadequate government safeguards contributed to the rise of misinformation, that has been especially visible and damaging during the Covid-19 pandemic. The scale of misinformation is huge considering India’s social media platform user base of more than 500 million. Out of the many social media platforms, Whatsapp and Facebook are amongst the main sources of misinformation.

Health related misinformation such as unscientific Covid-19  home remedies, vaccine rumours, false government announcements and misconstrued statistics accounted for 62.1 % of the reported fake news, according to an analysis of reports from fact-checking websites. Doctors and medical professionals have had to adapt themselves to treat the “infodemic” that is accompanying the pandemic. In a cross-sectional survey of more than 700 medical professionals in India, 68.2% reported receiving misinformation from multiple sources while more than half of the respondents found it difficult to distinguish between correct and incorrect information. As medical professionals are often key information providers to patients and their communities, they find the spread of misinformation particularly challenging.

Educational interventions are key to counter the threat of misinformation at all levels. It is crucial to impart critical thinking skills along with digital skills at schools to reduce such online risks.

The 2018 PISA reading assessments highlighted that if students were taught to distinguish between objective or biased information in school, they performed better in sections of the test that measured their ability to differentiate facts from opinions. 

UNESCO MGIEP based in New Delhi has recently developed an online course for learners aged 13+ and educators to develop critical social and emotional skills during the pandemic. The course will equip learners with skills to tackle rumours, misinformation and fake news related to Covid-19.

Beyond formal education, informal awareness campaigns using animation and comics in visually engaging formats also help disseminate knowledge about misinformation to both children and adults. An NGO in Assam has been running cartoons in the local newspapers that caricaturise the infodemic and pandemic as its lead protagonists who highlight the menace of misinformation. Similarly, India’s first female comic superhero, Priya, has taken upon herself to fight fake news around the pandemic and encourage appropriate behaviour in animated videos.

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