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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #029 – Phillips

By CEID Blogger, on 17 June 2020

Transitioning to Online Education in Tajikistan: A Quarantine Story

By William Phillips

AKES lycée in Khorog, Tajikistan undergoing retrofitting just prior to the pandemic.

Tajikistan, a low-income country in Central Asia, has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and has struggled to organize what few resources it has.  This, I experienced first-hand in my role as Regional Education Programme Manager for the Aga Khan Education Services in Central Asia.

When COVID-19 hit Central Asia, we at the Aga Khan Education Services (AKES) managed to get our schools online.  On launching our online learning and student support system in Kyrgyzstan, our team crossed the border into Tajikistan with the intention of doing the same there. Within 4 hours of arriving in Tajikistan, however,  all borders closed, and lockdown ensued. We were stuck.

Tajikistan’s public education was arguably struggling before COVID-19. For years, a stagnant economy has hindered efforts to expand services and boost learning outcomes. Despite increasing education sector spending as a portion of Gross Domestic Product, a recent economic downturn has resulted in smaller annual budgets in absolute terms year on year. The country has also relied more heavily on remittances than any other country except the Philippines.

Six hours after arriving in Tajikistan, we were quarantined by the military in an old Soviet installation on the roof of the world, approximately 4,000 meters above sea level. Despite the beautiful views and camaraderie of my colleagues, my low blood pressure, and possibly mild altitude sickness led the authorities to transfer the entire team to a facility lower down – a psychiatric hospital. Spending 16 days in the old Soviet facility and then psychiatric ward was tedious and at times painful but it felt like a sensible decision by the authorities. Nurses and security guards joined us for meals shared from a single large bowl and played countless games of poker.

A view from quarantine at the Roshtkala psychiatric facility.

Upon release, we managed to set up the same distance learning and psychosocial support system for our schools and facilities in Tajikistan, but it was barely a fortnight before people in the village started becoming ill. On a Friday evening, just after we closed all facilities and moved all staff to remote work, our translator fell ill with a fever. The following day the entire team and I were ill. It took 7 days of self-isolation, fever, and nerve pains, before I began to feel almost human again. The following morning, I was taken to hospital in an ancient and rugged ambulance, a welcome remnant of the Soviet Union, with pneumonia and trouble breathing. This time, quarantine was only 9 days.

With many migrants now out of work, travel prohibited, and few jobs to return to, the crisis stands to intensify – many families will now no longer be able to afford the hidden costs to education or the opportunity costs. The longer schools remain closed, the more the economy suffers, and the more households have to make difficult decisions about expenditures, the less likely it becomes that these children will return to formal education.

The hospitals are understaffed, in poor repair and lacking in most areas. The facilities are ancient. If one wishes to eat or take medication during quarantine, all food, pharmaceuticals, and medical paraphernalia must be purchased and brought to the hospital by friends and family. This is not an experience I would recommend or wish to repeat. Despite the conditions, the staff were fantastic. Rarely have I encountered such kind (and overworked) nursing staff, and such jolly (and exhausted) doctors.

Khorog City Hospital quarantine. From left, William Phillips and Dr. Iskander Payruzov.

The medical situation I saw firsthand is not great, but it could be far worse. Currently, from what I can garner from sources, all local hospitals, quarantine sites, and field hospitals are full of pneumonia patients. There is no way of knowing how many people have contracted the coronavirus, as the available testing facilities can handle a very limited number of tests per day in a country of roughly 9 million. Our greatest fears have been that hospitals would run out of basic resources and antibiotics to treat pneumonia or that a lockdown and logistics issues would begin to lead to food shortages.

Fortunately, our fears have not come to pass, and things do seem to be getting better. The majority of our staff have been ill but are recovering now. At least one team member has contracted pneumonia for the second time. The number of recovered rises daily and due to the rate of infection, there may well be herd immunity in our locale in the not-too-distant future assuming such a thing is possible. On top of which, so far there has not yet been a shortage of medication, and only relatively mild delays in foodstuff deliveries. As things begin to improve, life begins to return to the streets, yet borders remain closed and travel inadvisable. For now, I intend to remain, see things through, and prepare for a possible second wave of infection, though at times remaining productive can be difficult due to despondency, isolation, and emotional strain.

The effects of this virus can be terrifying and all the more so when the possible indirect, mid- and long-term effects are considered. In such a difficult context, in a country likely to experience extreme economic difficulty, the question becomes whether or not it will be possible to maintain the current levels of provision, whether or not families will be able to choose education, and whether or not aid agencies will be able to fill any of the gaps with, presumably, less funding and greater challenges. There has been much talk of this pandemic as an opportunity for reimagining education, yet as Elaine Unterhalter pointed out in a recent CEID blog post, where are the big ideas? We must also ask: will this opportunity merely turn into a prolonged crisis and the extension of temporary solutions such as the current models we have seen of distance learning in low-income countries? Only time will tell.

William Phillips is Regional Education Programme Manager for the Aga Khan Education Services in Central Asia and a master’s student at the UCL Institute of Education.

Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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