By Aimen Shakeel Abbasi & Aqeel Chaudhry
Just like any other walk of life – educational institutions, to which around 25% of Pakistanis visit daily, were closed in March. As infections decreased in early September, educational institutions started opening on the premise that we will follow SOPs. It may be the right decision as life should go back to normal. But keeping in mind case studies of other countries, restarting normal life has been a very unhealthy experience after all.
Closing schools or keeping them open has now been a debate for quite some time. Various high-level meetings have been chaired to discuss this issue. A meeting was also to be on November 16 with all provincial education ministers on prevailing condition of COVID-19 and whether schools should be opened or closed till the end of the year. Here we shed some light on this decision.
Children as Asymptomatic Carriers
The current literature suggests children remain asymptomatic and the virus is less of a danger to them than older individuals. But there is no denying of the fact that they can act as a potential carrier of COVID-19. A single carrier may transfer the virus to at least 40-60% of the group causing a chain reaction to start.
The reopening of schools was based on research that children and adults aged 20 or younger were less affected. This fact provides extensive support for the initiative to reopen. But it does not justify how a country with poor infrastructure and weak institutions can follow the required SOPs. Governments worldwide strengthened vital health institutions so SOPs could be followed. They also took all necessary precautions before reopening the school gates.
As we can see, Pakistan lacks this system and does not possess effective policies to implement; the country did not prepare itself for the reopening of the schools. It is now one of the reasons why we now face a sudden peak in cases. The question must again put on the table: should we close our educational institutions again or not?
Going Back to Normal and Some Numbers
After September 15, many of educational institutions were sealed due to COVID cases along with many smart lock-downs across Pakistan. None of the SOPs or any of the prescribed health protocols were being followed by students. This highlights the belief that while students themselves didn’t get symptoms, they were indirectly responsible for spreading the virus.
Pakistan has a population of 221.16 million with the number of households exceeding 33.0 million. Out of these students are around 50.5 million. The average age for children to start going to school is 4 years old. Thus there are 1 or 2 children in each household of Pakistan going to school. If these numbers are not enough, let’s put another face to this problem, how our children go to school.
Personal cars are a luxury to most of the students so let’s not talk about them. Children are either crammed into vans so tight they have difficulty breathing, let alone breathing with masks. The second option which most students use is public transport. This also facilitates in spreading of the virus as it does not provide the required social distancing between individuals.
Second Wave is Coming – Or is it Here
So does it means how each household can become host to COVID-19, these all children can be carriers of this dreadful virus and that is the reason upon sampling done by the Government of Pakistan we are seeing a high rise of COVID cases. In each household, we have one or more children who can bring the virus home to their grandparents and family. Pakistan is on the verge of facing the second wave of COVID-19. In the last 15 days, 22,934 new cases with the highest being 2,443 in one day that means the second wave is on its way. One reason for this new peak is the reopening of schools from September to November; of which we can highlight children as a source. Another question arises here, which is, are we prepared for this new peak?
Our Healthcare Facilities & Future
Nations all around the world during lockdown enhanced their healthcare system. The reason for lockdown was to reduce or minimize the spread of COVID-19, but the main reason is buy time and to improve the healthcare system along with hospital capacity. Pakistan has a total of 1,650 ventilators for 221 Million population which mean 134,036 persons per ventilator, and 0.6 beds for 1,000 people. We did not utilize that time effectively. 58 lives of our healthcare workers were lost till July 02 and we stopped counting the loss. Still seeing all these issues, the capacity was not enhanced, and it is a matter of time that Pakistan will be going through the same phase again, which was faced in the previous hike of COVID-19 cases.
On this matter, children can be one of the most potential carriers for the more vulnerable age groups residing back home; schools in this matter are producing death beds for many vulnerable strata of the community. The high-class meeting of federal education minister, provincial ministers and health staff will provide the country a way forward in these difficult times. We must do everything we can to keep these numbers low while deciding our future.