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July 10, 2020

Panic and the pandemic

Opinion

July 10, 2020

When the first cases of the virus we now know as Covid-19 occurred in the Chinese province of Wuhan late last year, no one had realized how significantly it would change lives and how Machiavellian politicians would be in their use of it to serve their own purposes.

A prime example of this has come in the announcement by the US State Department on Monday that international students studying in the US at university would have to return to their homes if their classes were to occur completely online for the coming semester. This has created pandemonium among over one million foreign students pursuing higher education in the US. The majority are from China, followed by India. Many pay fees as high as $70,000 per year.

The decision made by the Trump administration gives them no time to transfer to other colleges and for those whose classes are in-person or a hybrid between the two options, it is mandatory that they come to the US by the start of term whether or not flights are departing from their home countries. India for example has locked flights coming in or out of the country till August 31. Indian students essentially have no way to reach their universities, and having made their deposits face a loss of thousands of dollars since they may not be allowed to resume in the future.

The force set up in 2003 to fight crime and terrorism under the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, commonly known as ICE and now feared by immigrants, people of colour and others who seek only to earn a livelihood or education has been assigned to forcibly deport the international students who do not move out of the US voluntarily, even if they are unable to return to their home countries. The measure has already been condemned by US civil rights groups and other organisations around the world while students have been left confused and completely uncertain about their futures. Many come from households that have struggled extremely hard for years to raise the costs of an education in the US, under a system that has become increasingly based around the earning of profits.

But it is not the US alone where education is in disarray. The system of online teaching has led to protests from British parents who say that at both school and university level, it is highly unsatisfactory, poorly thought out and offers little to pupils. As a result, the UK government is considering reopening schools as fast as it can. But with some experts suggesting a new spike in Covid-19 cases may hit Europe by the fall, no one quite knows what lies ahead. Meanwhile, it is obvious that the education of young people and children is suffering as is their mental health in a situation where they have been isolated for months. Other countries face similar traumas.

At home in Pakistan, the attempt to put universities online verges on disaster. In the first place, it is highly discriminatory. Students from the former tribal areas which have now been merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and parts of Balochistan, have almost no internet access, with WiFi services cut off to these regions during the long fight against terrorism. It is uncertain how they are to pursue their courses. And in almost all parts of the country power supply is frequently disrupted in even major towns and cities. The insistence by the Higher Education Commission that it will continue this dysfunctional online system of learning for all, take full fees from students of private colleges who in many cases struggle to meet these costs and suggests that if a student cannot keep up, he or she should drop the semester illustrates the attitude towards less privileged persons and students. These then are the ‘poor’ people that Imran Khan had vowed to defend at all costs, even if it meant an expansion or extension of the pandemic that has changed lives for so many.

In the US, the decision taken by the government is being seen as racist by many. It resembles the Trump administration’s attitudes towards immigrants and lack of sympathy for those who would expect support from a country that calls itself a prime defender of human rights and democracy.

The poor quality of online content in Pakistan has already been pointed out by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a distinguished professor at FC College who resigned from his post after being asked to sign a one year, non-renewable contract. At the broader level, we also have Ammar Ali Jan, known as a teacher with immense popularity amongst students, being asked to leave FCC. Previously, he had been forced out of the Punjab University while Dr Hoodbhoy had been asked to leave the prestigious LUMS.

It is difficult to believe all this is a coincidence. We do know however that these teachers had spoken out against the education system in place, sought a more equitable one and spoken out to their students about the real problems of the country they live in. This is not acceptable.

The situation that has arisen in the US highlights how politics can destroy the lives of young people and deny them the right to the best possible education they can achieve. The fact that the world’s top leaders would condone this is alarming. We have seen events of this nature for many years in our country. Things seem to be growing worse. Frighteningly the problem of bigotry and bias, disguised as a response to a virus, appears to be expanding across the globe.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]