Our beloved and vibrant niece Sarita had joined us for a day during a sunny Mayaro week. I did not know it at the time, but while the laughter and camaraderie overlooking the beach were at their height, she had shown her aunt something under her arm.
Ten days later, she shared a stage three cancer diagnosis with us. What a case of laugh and cry living in the same yard!
I write about it because Sarita decided to be very open and public about her diagnosis. Her decision brought warm responses and stimulated dialogues with other persons—some who were already coping with illness and others who were frightened about symptoms and wanted to know what to do.
These are lives that can be capsized in the few breathtaking minutes in which an adverse diagnosis is revealed.
Seven months after the arrival of the pandemic, Sarita’s diagnosis became a very significant addition to an ongoing reflection triggered by the upending of all our lives by the arrival of Covid-19.
It sharpened my observation that the reminder of the mortality of all of us, which the pandemic contains, did not trigger a pause in the arrogance and hostility on constant display by many of our leaders. They continue to behave as though they are not mere mortals, also subject to events like natural disasters, pandemic, catastrophic illness, murder, or fatal accident.
These events are strokes of the pen of life. Their effects are as swift as a stroke of a pen. They can diminish the powerful as easily as the documents that they sign, and, in the exercise of political and civic power, mess-up the lives of others who have entrusted them with that power.
In the Covid-19 media conferences, the rulers autocratically tell us what they will and will not ‘allow’ and as a consequence make periodic strokes of the pen on the coronavirus regulations (more than 30 iterations so far), restricting a wide range of activities.
However, the powerful do not get the mortality message. They remain insulated until it is too late for them to think empathetically about what their acts and omissions do to other people.
That brings me back to the deficiencies of online learning, following upon the restriction of in-person attendances at school. Last week, I explored the technical deficiencies which are condemning mostly poorer children to a learning death sentence and burying them further into the socio-economic wilderness.
This week I return to the subject, in order to draw attention to some other perspectives confirmatory of the learning death sentence passed on nearly half the school population.
I noted with interest the acknowledgement of the Minister of Public Administration and Digital Transformation Senator Allyson West—reflected in a report in the Trinidad Express on 3 December—that disparities in the education system were made glaring when children were forced into home-based, online learning.
Also reported was Senator West’s very significant acknowledgement that online learning was a crucial part of the government’s digitisation thrust and that it was urgent to establish equity in the education sector. What is the government’s plan to accomplish this? Dead silence!
It seems likely therefore that if online education is failing so many children, then the highly touted digitisation of the economy will be of equally uneven quality.
Many children, now cut off from in-person contact with their school friends and the caring from their teachers, were already suffering dire economic and affection poverty. We have added the deprivation of ‘digital poverty’, which is how a lack of equity in the education sector—such as that acknowledged by Minister West—has been characterised.
In the United Kingdom, the chief executive officer of Colleges was quoted in The Independent newspaper as stating that if the digital poverty is not relieved: ‘we risk stunting the life chances of young people for years to come’.
Schools re-open next year for students but only in certain forms for the limited purpose of taking exams. In-person classes for all students should be restored, at least on a limited basis, while full participation for all is redesigned.
Do the powerful even care about the prevailing rampant inequality?
“…the technical deficiencies which are condemning mostly poorer children to a learning death sentence and burying them further into the socio-economic wilderness.“
I feel there is more than a modicum of truth in the implication that comparatively not much learning occurs in poorer households. But this—and all of last week’s column—probably underestimates and undervalues the non-academic learning for which the household must take responsibility.
Is “learning death sentence” not an eloquent overstatement?