The Pandemic Highlights a Need to Educate for Equity and Social Inclusion

BLOG by Minati Panda, Professor of Cultural Psychology and Education, JNU President, National Academy of Psychology (NAOP); Director, National Multilingual Education Resource Consortium (NMRC),; Editor of Cultural Cognitive Psychology Journal (Springer) & MLE Newsletter Swara.

In a not so remote village of southern Odisha (India), Sunita Pradhan, a migrant, who lost her husband and her elder child to Covid and poverty while traveling back to her home town from Surat during lockdown reveals unsettling contractions of the state machinery.

Sunita says, “…when we joined the groups traveling to Surat for work in 2016, I thought we still had some place in India to go, earn a living and support our family in the village. But, while traveling back, I realized that I belong nowhere. Railway stations are not mine, the roads are not mine, the police are not mine, the factory is not mine and my life is also not mine. After the death of my husband and son, I fear if my village remains mine. In the eyes of my in-laws and neighbors, I will probably be an ominous outsider who brought death to her husband and son. My worst fear is that my in-laws may send me back to my parents who are already suffering from ill health and poverty.

This is just one of numerous cases of entrenched patriarchy and the state induced dystopia both in public and personal lives of people in developing countries. Numerous such narratives are documented across borders about how physical spaces suddenly become out of bounds for those who were earlier making their living in those spaces. The Corona pandemic is a crisis, with deep and unforeseeable consequences for the poor and marginalized. It has pushed an additional 97 million people into extreme poverty in the year 2020 with abysmal signs of recovery in the year 2021. More than 40 percent of children in developing countries like India who were already under-nourished are now at the threshold of severe physical and psychological breakdown. Women and child abuse has increased significantly, as police entries attest. Incidences of mental health breakdown have almost tripled in border and armed conflict areas. The breakdown of social networks, limited access to healthcare, fear of contracting the virus, social disengagement, and the fear of being a burden on their families have caused unbridgeable violence to the old. Forced physical and emotional dislocation, othering, loss of citizenship, individual helplessness and psychic dispossession have become ubiquitous features of this time. Further increases in global inequality due to class, caste, gender, race, ethnicity etc. are feared to cause egregious violation of human rights, putting almost all societies in a state of economic and health emergency.

The pandemic has turned homes, urban spaces and border areas into primary sites of exclusion, trauma, psychological abuse and violation. The poor and the marginalized are losing their claim on the labour intensive urban and semi- urban spaces. The city that they build and maintain no longer belongs to them. They were always the “other” in those cities, but they still found a place in some corner of the city to live. The pandemic has stripped them of that space as well as a livelihood.

Studies show that the sheer magnitude and obviousness of human miseries during pandemic is fast immunizing its victims against a full disclosure of state failures and the menacing capabilities of the neoliberal market. We need a very different kind of education that counters this process of normalizing different forms and modes of domination. It is not enough to make education equally accessible. Education needs to build basic intellectual and emotional capabilities in people that help them identify forces that violate the basic human rights to live a free and dignified life. It should discuss how certain groups and societies obstruct possibilities for many to develop a sense of being.Education needs to humanize the interactional spaces and create capabilities to realize that this earth belongs to everybody and the politics of exclusion and othering is mutually destructive.

Human rights education, therefore, needs to be a formidable part of both school and higher education. The historical narratives about how gender binary, patriarchy, caste, class, religion and ethnicity have contributed to delegitimize certain groups and individuals, denied their claims to universal knowledge and power and treated them as “other” need to be part of the school curriculum.  In other words, people’s histories of domination and suffering should find a legitimate place in school curricula.

Linguistic human rights (LHR) is one of the several human rights that UNESCO has been emphasizing in the last few decades. Psycho-linguistic research shows how lack of use of children’s mother tongue in school education results in poor development of literacy skills among children in the early years and of higher order critical faculty in later years. This not only deepens the social and economic inequalities between the linguistically privileged minority and the minoritized majority, it reproduces the existing power structures of the society.  Use of children’s multilingual resources in the curriculum and classroom pedagogy reorganizes the power structures of the classrooms, creates a sense of belonging among the children, fosters the identity of a participant and pluralises knowledge.

Another excerpt from Sunita’s Narrative

“…I am worried about my second child. She was studying in Gujarati medium school in Surat and was doing ok. She had some health issues and therefore was not regular. But, she was doing fine in the school. I am now worried about her as she doesn’t know Odia language. Schools here teach in Odia. I can’t read and write. But, I want my daughter to study and do a Government job. I don’t want her to live like us.”


  1. Different phases of covid-19 have affected the marginalised castes differently. Structural inequalities have been intensified due to entirely new phenomenon of covid and unequal distribution of means required to cope with it. This is true in congruence with the testimony of a government school teacher in UP. The teacher says,” maximum number of students in government primary and secondary school are from marginalised section of society. For instance,SC\ST\ muslim minorities etc. He further says that children of these marginalised communities were already lacking behind in education and require additional efforts on the end of teacher but situations like Covid have rendered them worst in the matter of education. Children no longer wish to go to the school because of the tedious and unrelated curriculum to their life but when the same curriculum is transmitted through the online mode or not transmitted at all makes it worst situations for the children, especially when their parents are not educated or in some cases they are the first generation school goers”
    Cheap internet, electricity connection and an android mobile phone are the minimum requirements for the student to subscribe himself\herself to the activities being asked to be done on the end of school. But this only does not ensue that children start studying. Mobile phone comes with its one thousand possibilities to which no education have been provided either to teachers or to students. Extra sensory engagement of students in the audio visual functioning of mobile might make them addicted to it.

  2. These inequalities, based on caste, gender, class, religion, language, have existed for a long time. But they have been largely hidden from the people who do not explicitly suffer from its consequences. Despite how traumatic and problematic the pandemic has been. it has managed to bring to the forefront the intricately hidden layers of sufferings experienced by the majority of the minority groups. This momentum needs to continue so that more and more people can become aware of the forces at work that shape the narrative that is popularized amongst the masses. It is indeed an imperative measure to focus on changing the education system in order to reach the root of the reproduction and advancement of inequalities. As a system that is responsible for disseminating knowledge to the larger section of the society- a section which, by design, gains the power to influence and shape the society, education needs to be carefully structured.

  3. Thank you for a very engaging and absorbing take on the effect of the pandemic beyond the body and mind.
    My area of research is ageing in cities and like all other areas, ageing experience has been strongly influenced by COVID. The first wave identified Covid as affecting the elderly more severely and this created many challenges for them. An ageing body is already home to many fears and paranoia of disease and symptoms. Adding Covid to the equation made things even tougher. Secondly, dependence is a mixed bag of emotions and the fear of being infected makes the aged even more dependent on the younger family and community members,
    As Covid progressed from one wave to the next, social isolation became especially difficult for the elderly people who may not have jobs or relevant reasons to step out of home in the first place. Social isolation impacts, psychological, physical and emotional health. And as the rest of the family suffers along with the aged, the psychological pain of ageing in a pandemic may become obscure or hazy.

  4. Covid has been testing time for every country around the world, it has shown us both the best and worst that humans are capable of, probably we still living with Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest”. The only problem is, now survival is not based on natural selection but social selection.
    Otherization and Marginalization have been part of our social existence for such a long time that it has become part of our social fabric. As society, we have become oblivious of the fact that human life is not measured through the economic value that one holds in country’s economy. Covid further jeopardized the life of people living on margins, in case of India that brunt has been born buy daily wage migrant workers who were compelled to go back to their villages on foot in lack of any opportunity for sustenance in the cities. As per report in Alazeera ( April 29, 2021), “India’s strict lockdown measures last year, such as severing transport links, took a toll on the nation’s estimated 100 million migrant workers, triggering an exodus from cities where they worked in garment factories, building sites and brick kilns.” Thus, making marginalization part of state apparatus.
    This kind of otherization, is not restricted to just developing countries, racialized communities in the US , UK and Canada have equally suffered. The deaths reported in Blacks and Latinex people in the United States are three time more than in White Americans. “While there isn’t a lot of race-based data in Canada, the rates of racialized infection and deaths among racialized people are likely the same. The pandemic exacerbates existing racial inequalities because of the systems in place, despite the fact that the virus itself doesn’t discriminate by race. It’s only able to discriminate because of the conditions that individuals are subjected to on a day to day basis”. (Frances, H. 2021. Impact of Covid in Radicalized Communities).
    Covid has been a clarion call to change the social fabric by imbuing it with acceptance , equity and respect for human life , and removing the threads of social bias. Human rights education is not magical wand , but it is definitely the way of changing our present and future by engaging in critical discourses around human dignity and change the narrative of otherization to assimilation.

  5. The article has rightly pointed out that the pandemic time is only reminding us the inequalities that have been prevailing in the developing countries. The fight against crisis during the pandemic must continue even if the crisis is over as it is systemic. The article has taken this point well as arguing for human right education that addresses structural inequalities and measures to tackle them.

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