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Opinions of Friday, 29 May 2020

Columnist: Desmond Darko

Reopening schools now will endanger the aged

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If President Akufo-Addo reopens schools any time soon, the decision may be a recipe for disaster for the aged and other people with underlying health conditions, who hitherto may have religiously observed the World Health Organisation’s safety protocols to remain alive in the pandemic. Sending school children back to school now will undoubtedly increase the possibility of this category of persons contracting the virus through the school and dying before their time. Those who support every action of President Akufo-Addo and his government must pause for a minute and think twice about it before goading him on to reopen schools now.

COVID-19 is ravaging all segments of society. Among the dead from the virus, according to Ghana’s official records, is a nine-year-old who had no underlining health condition. On Wednesday, news had it that 2 members and 13 staff of Ghana’s parliament have tested positive for COVID-19. In fact, many believe the virus has infected a lot more people in the country than the official figures show. Certainly, the virus is leaving no level of the social scale-out in its wake of infections and killings.

There is a high possibility that some teachers and school children may have the virus but are unaware of their status since according to experts, asymptomatic cases dominate Ghana’s record of COVID-19 cases presently. We are also told that these asymptomatic cases are the worst culprits in the spread of the virus within a population. Now, imagine even one of such asymptomatic cases in a normal basic school environment in any part of the country, especially in the cluster of schools in places like the capital, Accra.

The talk of schools to observe the safety protocols after reopening is a joke. We know too well that the schools simply cannot ensure the children follow the protocols. How then will these schools be safe for both teachers and school children not to contract the virus? The protocols cannot work in most of the schools, not even in the tertiary institutions. Overpopulation in our schools is an understatement. These schools are totally congested. Even running double or triple shifts cannot solve the problem. It is simply not practicable.

So, a member of a school community- a teacher, a pupil, a student, a worker or food vendor from any of the COVID-19 hotspot areas who is already infected but asymptomatic and unaware of their status goes to school and starts spreading the virus without knowing it. Have we thought about how long it could take for the whole school to have many more persons infected?

First of all, children who have underlying health conditions like asthma or diabetes and have been protected at home by their parents all this while will be put directly in harm’s way in school. What about teachers and other older persons within the school who have such conditions?

A number of the infected but mostly asymptomatic children will then take the spread to their various communities and homes. None will be spared, not grandpa or grandma, mum or dad, aunt or uncle, brother or sister or even friends and neighbours. And it is particularly precarious for those with underlining conditions who may have all this while kept the safety protocols and remained safe.

The position of government is that the spread of COVID-19 among the various communities so far is disproportionate. If that is the case, a decision to reopen schools will certainly cause that situation to change very soon because in the event of outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools, teachers and school children may pick the virus from school and send it to communities which are currently safe.

The argument has been made that, school children while at home, roam their communities and follow their parents to the market anyway. The fact, however, is that the movement of children is largely restricted to their communities. If schools reopen, children from many different communities will converge in one place called school. And if it is true that some communities are safer than others, then government’s containment measures may be utterly defeated.

Again, comparing schools to markets is totally misplaced. The behaviour of adults in markets cannot be compared with the behaviour of young children in schools. The two scenarios can just not be put at par. Question is, how many sellers or buyers go to the markets on a daily basis compared to schools?

One does not need health expertise to know that the spread of COVID-19 in, and through schools has the potential to be much more rapid and devastating than any harm the markets can cause in that regard. The markets are obviously bad but the schools will be worse.

There are voices of reason sounding the alarm bells that it is too early to send children back to school. We need to give ourselves a little more time to see how things pan out in the immediate future before making a final decision.

Government prides itself in the fact that “only 33” persons have died from COVID-19 as at now, and that these victims mostly had underlining conditions. Perhaps if the aged, who are mostly those with underlining conditions have not been staying at home but moving about like the younger generation does, the situation would have been far worse.

It will be insensitive to begin endangering the lives of these old men and women by reopening schools at this time, where there is high possibility of the schools becoming a conduit of the spread of COVID-19. We cannot compound an already bad situation by reopening schools just yet.