School re-opening amidst delta variant too risky. It’s coming two years since the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and its negative effects on our livelihoods rage on.
We have lost loved ones, been sick ourselves, lost our jobs, businesses, and our movements restricted to either our homes (Lockdowns) or countries (Travel bans).
Like any other sector that pools people in one place, the education sector in Uganda has been badly hit by the pandemic. This is because teachers, pupils, students, and suppliers interact physically, a recipe for disaster.
The entire school calendar has been turned upside down leaving all stakeholders either stranded or economically ruined respectively. Primary seven, senior four, senior six candidates have found it tough to sit exams and join the next education level and university final students have failed to hold graduations.
This covid19 state of affairs has led to some Ugandans and international organizations like UNICEF to call for a swift reopening of schools citing the negative effects resulting from prolonged closure such as teen pregnancies, child abuse or even murder, teachers abandoning the sector, and school owners going bankrupt after losing their properties to money lenders sending them into abject poverty.
In all fairness to the Uganda government and the Ministry of Education, in particular, opening schools in the middle of a raging pandemic would be a fatalistic gamble that puts the lives of parents, teachers, students, and entire communities at high risk. Re-opening must be guided by a risk-based approach to avoid escalation of infections and re-closures.
Re-opening agitators must be aware that fighting Covid19 is a global effort, from lockdowns, flight restrictions, sharing scarce medical materials, and now vaccines accessibility.
No country can isolate itself and deal with covid19 alone. To make matters worse, the world was caught flatfooted by the outbreak of covid-19 leaving physicians, researchers, public health experts, and policymakers perplexed about the best way to deal with it.
They may agree on vaccination but are not sure how many jabs, for which category, which vaccines offer long-term protection, and the side effects on a human body.
It’s from this background that I ask what informed a whole UNICEF chief of communication Mr. James Elder to say “reopening schools cannot wait for all teachers and students to be vaccinated “really?
We all now know that the delta variant infections among the unvaccinated 12-30-year-olds have been soaring in Europe and America. This age group makes the largest population in Uganda’s school system (Pupils, Students, and Teachers) and most of them are yet to be vaccinated.
Mr. Elder wants Uganda to reopen schools before vaccinating the same population. I know multinational organizations thrive in chaos and disasters but we expect holistic advice based on facts.
Through UNICEF, Mr. Elder, an Australian himself, should instead make a case for Uganda and Africa, in general, to be availed vaccines that are being hoarded by the first world in which he belongs.
Over 125 countries in the developing world, are struggling to access vaccines with some yet to receive a single dose. Healthcare workers and the elderly are losing their lives. This is the area where we expected him to advise Uganda.
Doctors like Kiiza Besigye and Mary Nakabugo of UWEZO have been on TV saying Uganda faces a generational catastrophe because of the closure of schools. However justified they are, opening schools without vaccination will endanger an even bigger generation.
So why not vaccinate? This is where Uganda needs UNICEF and Mr. James Elder’s influence, western countries have bought off all produced vaccines and booked those in the production pipelines. Uganda cannot find vaccines even when money is available. Vaccine hoarding is so bad that World Health Organisation chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has described it as “scandalous inequity”
Therefore, while the frustrations of closed schools are very understandable, we cannot pretend that the problem is caused by the government. Uganda is part of the global village, moreover the lower part of the village, our failures are intertwined with our village mates.
To make matters worse, we have the new delta variant affecting younger people including infants. This makes opening schools even more dangerous to both pupils and teachers.
Everyone has been affected by the pandemic economically, socially, medically, and fatally. Whole economies have suffered immensely, jobs lost and personal fortunes wiped out.
The rationale for keeping a school closed is that yes, we can lose properties and time, but we can save lives that will carry the recovery after the pandemic is gone.
It does not make sense to reopen schools before vaccinating enough teachers, pupils, and students because if either group falls sick, we shall close and lose more time, money, and much worse, lives again.
Uganda has been through worse virulent pandemics, we shall overcome this one well.
By Magezi Kirinjju
Also, read OPED: Prioritize re-opening of schools to secure children’s well being by Dr. Munir Safieldin, UNICEF Representative in Uganda (02 July 2021); https://www.unicef.org/uganda/press-releases/prioritize-re-opening-schools-secure-childrens-well-being