COUNTERPOINT By Femi Akintunde Johnson
I get it: the children have been home for more than four months, with a worrying potential that their education may be stunted to such a degree that they may be clutching air in an attempt to catch up with their contemporaries universally, in this frenetic digital age, where we still struggle, nationally.
I get it: young parents are witnessing the sweet-bitter exposure to infant belligerence and relentless mischievousness – not merely on weekends – but through a near hellish four months; perfectly made even more nightmarish by several weeks of lock-down that forced parents to stay home without any hope of escape into offices or some field work.
I get it: irritated parents, itching teachers, terrified school owners and other vested interest are pulling the government on all sides, trying to pressurise the government, especially in the states, to open up the educational space for some controlled school resumption.
I get it: life, as we know it, has basically shifted, perhaps permanently…to what is now commonly called “the new normal” – and part of the human response to beat Covid-19, is to somehow within reasonable and knowledge-based precautions and self-preserving protocols, device means of resuming “normal” lifestyle. We needed to get the businesses back at some steam… transportation had to get back on the move…markets, churches, mosques, restaurants, cinema houses, bars, recreation centers… almost all the elements that define our humanity have to be restarted… Even as we sort out efforts to check the spread of Covid-19, and await, with hope on this side, for vaccines that can save human beings, as early as possible.
With constant head nodding, you are probably in sync with the sentiments in the above paragraphs, and therefore understand the reason why the federal government endorsed general resumption of schools across the nation as from October 5. This is in spite of worried signals that Covid-19 may surge dangerously high in same October, and probably spike another round of quarantine and lockdowns.
Let us pause and review the available data that could justify our seeming risk to sacrifice the lives of our children on what appears a hunch that Covid-19 may be curtailed when children, characteristically ebullient and restless, mingle and frolic in so-called sanitized (safe) environment. Many schools in the United States have had thousands of returning students quarantined to prevent further spread of Covid-19; we have read alarming warnings of top US scientists advising school authorities not to send students suspected to be asymptomatic back to their homes – to prevent infecting adults.
Perhaps a report by The European Sting in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, published on August 10, 2020 will provide alternating perspectives to deepen our appreciation of these worrying times. Here are few extracts which crunched the numbers using Nigeria as one of its research-cases:
“What we do know is that low-income countries face a very different set of circumstances from high-income countries – for example, a higher proportion of households that include both children and elderly people, difficulty (in) testing for COVID-19 and enforcing social distancing in existing school settings, and the urgency of maintaining the livelihoods of working-age adults to prevent hunger and poverty. Our study finds reopening schools too early in developing countries could undermine the gains made so far in containing the spread of the virus. When deciding to reopen schools, policymakers need to weigh these findings against the cost of keeping schools closed for a prolonged period…
“A common justification for re-opening schools is that children are very unlikely to die from COVID-19. Yet, children live with adults, and – particularly in developing countries – elderly adults. According UN data, the proportion of elderly people who live with at least one child under 20 is more than 10% in most African countries, compared to less than 1% in European countries and the United States. This raises the risk that children may contract the virus at school and transmit it to parents and grandparents at home.”
Indeed, the complexities of whether to reopen schools, or wait out the year, are damning for policy and decision makers: “Opening schools increases fatalities among older adults, and most commonly the elderly. By closing schools alone, our model predicts it could save around 175,000 lives relative to doing nothing. Other additional interventions can do even better, such as shielding the elderly. A blanket lockdown (of the formal sector) would save the most lives but would lead to large additional declines in GDP, meaning reduced livelihoods for many vulnerable households.”
For any decision taken, there are costs to pay, and losses to incur. What will our people prefer…between the deep blue sea and the hard unfeeling rock? Here is more from the Sting report: “The single biggest reason to delay school re-openings is to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Our study predicts that delaying school openings can be a potent force for saving lives, by reducing the risk of children getting infected at school, and in turn, spreading the virus within their households.”
“Of course, any policy decision about delaying school openings must dispassionately weigh the potential lives saved against the negative impacts of keeping children out of school for a long period. For example, evidence from the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone show an increase in out-of-wedlock pregnancies and a drop in school enrolment after the crisis among young women in villages. On the other hand, some families could not afford to send their children back to school after losing their livelihoods, indicating an important link between protecting livelihoods and access to education. Other major issues of concern in developing countries around keeping schools closed for long periods include losses in learning, missed midday meals, availability of childcare for working parents, and limited resources for online learning.”
From the copious reports around us, and experiences of other nations, especially the developed nations with heightened and more widespread counter measures against the spiralling grim-ripper, what I get is our bold-faced gamble to expose our children, and inevitably their parents and grandparents, to the contagion, and hope nothing bad happens. What I see is our government hoping, or wishing, that all will be well with our children, if only they would wash their hands regularly, wear face marks, keep safe distances; and school authorities mobilise teachers and school workers to supervise, lead by personal examples and drive the safe teaching environment in schools, either public or private. So much for national policy dependency on uncontrollable variables.
I am fully persuaded that if I have children of school-going age, I shall confidently ignore the risk and potential sacrifice of exposure wherein the government would not be around when the possible consequences of their resumption protocols backfire…and one would be left to carry one’s own cross – as it is with most of our relationship with governance in this continent. I would rather my children miss a full year of study, and resume when the air is sufficiently “immaculate”, and vaccines available…than join the government in the risky dance of “let’s reopen schools, and see what happens” – that, I get!