The devastating impact of Covid-19 goes beyond the over 2.5 million deaths globally.
Tens of thousands of businesses have also folded and millions of people have lost their jobs, plunging the world economy into the worst recession in many years. But it does not mean there have been no winners at all.
The telecommunications sector, for example, has been at the centre of everything that is critical to keeping economies ticking under the lockdowns to tackle the pandemic.
The sector ensured connectivity for businesses and enabled employees to work from home.
With travel and tourism down by 75 percent, it made it possible for individuals and communities to stay connected and access financial and commercial services.
No wonder telecommunications companies have seen revenue growth in the era of social distancing.
In Malawi, one of the biggest casualties has been the education sector.
No data is currently available to shed light on how bad the revenue numbers have been since the pandemic started. However, for hundreds of thousands of learners who had to stay home for months during the lockdown, 2020 was a lost year. The worst-hit were children of the country’s poor majority, who have spent months without schooling while learners in private schools dominated by sons and daughters of the well-to-do elites kept learning online.
For a long time, the consensus among education policy experts has been on the need for integrating ICT into the learning environment. No other time has this need been as strong as today.
Affordable, high-speed Internet, in particular, is key to keeping educators and learners connected to carry on with some of their activities when face-to-face interaction is impossible, as it was between March and October 2020 as well as January to February this year.
But if everyone—from the policy analysts and the politicians to the parents and the school principals– have been in agreement for a long time that we need better Internet access, why don’t we have it up to now?
Weeks ago, we saw MPs flounder about helplessly trying to get parliamentary deliberations going over Zoom because Internet connectivity was poor. Most, I believe, gave up.
Internet equality activists point to one thing: policy failure. The unwillingnes of governments to view the Internet as a public good like water, electricity, roads and hospitals.
Instead, the internet is sold like any other commodity on the market—except, it is not really an open market, at least in Malawi.
It is a cartel by powerful telecommunications companies which are protected by our governments in the name of economic stability. They are raking in cash while, everyday, their clients face the painful choice between food and the Internet.
We have heard the #DataMustFall crowd scream at these telcos to reduce data cost, but they won’t bulge. Actually, they do not have to because they are not legally obligated, anyway.
These multinationals respond to only one thing: competition.
Government might need to consider encouraging new players into the telecommunications market space to make it more competitive. It’s either that or we are forever chained to their greed.
The telecommunications companies always resist attempts by the government to shake it up.
They vigorously lobby government and openly threaten to downsize and cut jobs because competition weakens their grip on the sector. It’s like watching big cats guarding hunting territory on NatGeo.
But in the end, it is up to elected leaders of this country to chart the way forward.
Are they going to continue betting on the current telecommunications sector as far as bringing connectivity into the learning environment is concerned? If the answer is yes, then the bets better be more than appeals to industry players to make connectivity affordable for every household. It will never happen.
So, unless we can come up with concrete solutions to quickly facilitate ICT integration in our education system, we are just one calamity away from shutting down schools for a whole year again.
Next: How Malawi can take advantage of the Starlink, the space Internet by tech billionaire Elon Musk.