Younten Tshedup

For more than a decade, Dechen Wangmo, 11, from Tsangkhar village in Phongmey, Trashigang has learned to live on whatever little she had.

After her parents abandoned her at birth, Dechen Wangmo has been living with her grandmother in a relative’s house.

Until recently, education was her only saviour. The closure of schools across the country following the Covid-19 pandemic some four months ago has disrupted her learning.

Electronic items like television and smartphones are a luxury. The current pandemic has turned these items into a necessity, one that the class five student or her grandmother could ill afford.

With the closure of schools, lessons are taught through the national broadcaster and Google Classroom.

Dechen has access to none.

But that has not stopped the 11-year-old from learning. She has a classmate, her neighbour, Pema Tshomo, whose family owns a TV and a smartphone to access Google Classroom. For more than two months, the two have been studying together.

“I miss my school, my teachers and my friends,” says Dechen. “I understand the lessons better in school when our teachers explain; I don’t understand much when I watch it on TV. At school, the teacher explains that until we understand the lessons, but on television, the lessons go very fast, and we can’t catch up.”

Dechen’s story was a case study conducted by UNICEF Bhutan and published in the UNICEF’s new regional report ‘Lives Upended: How Covid-19 threatens the futures of 600 million Asian children’ released yesterday.

There are about 32,135 students like Dechen across the country with limited or no access to TV or the internet.

UNICEF’s report highlighted similar impacts on children from the Covid-19 pandemic in the South Asia region.

According to a press release from UNICEF, the Covid-19 pandemic is unravelling decades of health, education and other advances for children across South Asia, and governments must take urgent action to prevent millions of families from slipping back into poverty.

Food insecurity is growing during the pandemic. A UNICEF survey in Sri Lanka showed that 30 percent of families had reduced their food consumption, and in Bangladesh, some of the most impoverished families are unable to afford three meals a day.

In Bhutan, about 10,000 school children living in remote communities are missing out on school meals.

With schools closed, more than 430 million children have had to rely on remote learning, which has only partially filled the gap.

In Bhutan, according to UNICEF 179,263 school children are affected by Covid-19 school closures. About 32,135 children across the country, who were unable to access e-learning platforms were provided with self- instructional materials (SIM) to ensure education continuity.

UNICEF Bhutan Representative Dr Will Parks said UNICEF is working closely with the government to protect children from the impact of the pandemic.

“Children have to date not been the face of the pandemic, but this report shines a light on the risks to the wellbeing of children in Bhutan and the region,” he said. “It is a call to all of us to recognise the threat of Covid-19 reversing decades of investment made for our children.”

Officials said that phone helplines are reporting a surge in calls from children suffering violence and abuse during confinement at home. Some children are struggling with depression, even resulting in attempts at suicide.

The Sherig Counselling online platform set up to provide counselling and psychosocial support in response to the pandemic has to date recorded 259 children (113 boys and 146 girls) and 108 (48 male and 60 female) adults seeking psychosocial support.

Dr Will Parks said, “UNICEF Bhutan welcomes the government’s decision to reopen schools in a phased manner and the measures that are being put in place to reopen schools for all children.”

The report highlights the importance of scaling up the provision scaling up of low-tech home learning solutions such as using a combination of paper and mobile phone-based materials, especially for vulnerable groups such as girls, children living in remote areas and urban slums, and children with disabilities.

It also recommends reopening of schools as soon as possible while ensuring the safety of students and staff through the provision of adequate hand washing and toilet facilities, including proper physical spacing in classrooms and other school venues.

Meanwhile, with access to SIM, Dechen Wangmo said, “The book is better than TV. I can get help from a neighbour, Tshering Dema if I don’t understand.” Tshering Dema is a class XI student in another school.

Dechen wants to go back to school. “I don’t like staying at home. At school, we play and study. At home, we cannot go anywhere.”