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Background

Education is a human right and a force for sustainable development and peace and the very goal of the 2030 Agenda requires education to empower people with the knowledge, skills, and values to live in dignity, build their lives, and contribute to their societies (UNESCO, 2021). Inequality is a barrier to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all (ESCAP, 2021).

Education inequality is simply defined as the unequal distribution of academic resources which may include school funding, textbooks, experienced teachers, and, technology. The spread of the novel COVID-19 also known as coronavirus created the largest disruption of education systems in human history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 200 countries (Pokhrel & Chhetri, 2021). The first case was identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. As of 29 August 2021, Worldometer had recorded 217,100,627 Coronavirus cases, 4,513,249 deaths, and 194,031,701 recoveries. Malawi had a total of 60,313 cases, with 2157 deaths and 47,014 recoveries. Countries around the world cautioned the public to take responsive care like practicing social distancing, wearing face masks and, regularly washing hands with soap. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to dramatic changes in every aspect of humanity (Magomedov et al., 2020). It greatly affected the world as it has led to several problems in various sectors such as social life, industry, and education.

Inequalities existed along many dimensions before the pandemic hit, across the population and between different groups – by gender, ethnicity, age, and geography (Blundell et al., 2020). Source: Inequality in Education: A Critical Analysis, 2009.

Jacob and Holsinger (2009) argue that the range of inequality in schooling attainment across countries is much greater than the range of inequality in income or consumption. The figure above shows the worldwide distribution of the education Gini Coefficient. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean display the highest levels of inequality as compared to countries in Europe, Central Asia, and North America. The COVID-19 pandemic widened the already existing gap in education and this exposed the many inadequacies and inequities in our education systems – from access to broadband and computers needed for online education, and the supportive environments needed to focus on learning, up to the misalignment between resources and needs (Schleicher, 2020).

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While the need for distance learning was clear from the outset of the pandemic, achieving effective reach to students was more complex (eLearning Africa, 2020). The transition to distance learning was much easier in developed countries than in developing countries because the infrastructure needed for facilitating distance learning was not easy for schools in developing countries (Saeed, 2020). Developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa were against online education primarily due to poor internet services and a rejection of online education. This created discrimination among the students of poor and rich or urban and rural because those from the urban areas or rich families had the capability of learning in these difficult times. Educational institutions were also affected by Covid-19 in Malawi and this resulted in the closure of public and private education institutions on 23 March after President Mutharika declared the Covid-19 pandemic a national disaster.

Problem statement

Most studies on education inequality have found that the poor are the most disadvantaged. According to Mussa and Masanjala (2015), the acquisition of educational qualifications in Malawi becomes more regressive as the qualification level rises. The percentage of boys and girls in urban areas with a given education qualification is higher than that of those in rural areas because the gap between the haves and have-nots in all societies is a significant factor that contributes to inequality in education. Wilson (2021) argued that inequality in education can be measured through the relationship between educational attainment and family background. The attainment gap affects the rate of a person’s enrolment in secondary and tertiary education. Pokhrel and Chhetri (2021) focused mainly on the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic on teaching and learning. They emphasized that there is a paradigm shift in the way teachers deliver quality education through various online platforms. Different subjects and age groups require different approaches to online learning because of the varying needs each subject has. A study that was done by Baulch, Botha, and Pauw (2020) suggested that the closure of schools would account for substantial shares of total GDP losses due to social distancing. There hasn’t been enough literature on how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted students by widening the gap that has already existed in the education sector.

The closure of schools in Malawi required the government to replace classroom teaching with distance learning (online learning) so as to keep students busy in their respective places of abode. The majority of private schools were able to adopt online learning and this further widened the inequality gap that already existed in the education sector as students from public schools and those from low-income families or extreme poverty were completely left stranded. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a number of impacts on the education sector which has exacerbated the already existing gap in inequality and these include; the digital divide due to limited access to technology, mental health consequences, girls being negatively affected disproportionately, children receiving no education, children with disabilities not being in touch with their teachers and children learning less through online education (Human Right Watch, 2020).

This paper will look at the impacts of COVID-19 on the inequality gap in the education sector in Malawi because most researchers have only focused on the causes of inequality in education during the pandemic without giving the extent to which the pandemic increased the inequality gap in education.

Justification of the study

This study tries to fathom the reasons why education inequality has been exacerbated during the Coronavirus pandemic in Malawi. Magomedov, Khaliev, and Khubolov (2021) only focused on the positive and negative impacts the pandemic has had on the education sector. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 which aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities is very far from being reached (Hughes, 2021). Not all learners can access education to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote development during the pandemic because of different factors like their socioeconomic status and gender. Goal 3 which aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being at all ages is also far from being reached because children who go to school are taught how to take care of themselves and others during the pandemic. Those that could’ learn like those from rural areas were not fully aware of how they could reduce the spread of Coronavirus which will eventually lead to increased numbers of people contracting the deadly virus. There hasn’t been enough literature on how the pandemic has intensified the already existing inequality gap in the education sector. The most probable reason for the widening inequality gap in education is due to the poverty levels in the country that brought about obstacles to the effectiveness of distance learning proposed by the government (eLearning Africa, 2020).

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