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Ebola: Premature School Resumption Date Dangerous

Ebola: Premature School Resumption Date Dangerous
Minister of Education, Ibrahim Shekarau

With suspected new cases of the deadly Ebola Virus Disease popping up here and there, the Federal Government’s decision to fix school resumption date across the country for September 22 is short-sighted and wrong-headed. Given the highly infectious nature of the EVD, any thought of reopening schools when the contagion is yet to be brought under reasonable control will amount to taking an unnecessary risk and exposing the lives of innocent schoolchildren to avoidable danger. But even if we leave aside the public interest, it is not the duty of the central government to decide for states resumption schedules for their schools.

Evidently, the government had rightly seen the need to delay the resumption of schools at the onset of the Ebola outbreak, which informed the initial date of October 13. No doubt, the date was tentative and subject to further review, depending on the situation on the ground. However, with the uncertainty yet to clear, the government went ahead to announce a new date; it is difficult to situate the development in any other context than the fact that it is a capitulation to pressure from private school proprietors.

The World Health Organisation has just warned that thousands of new cases of Ebola are expected in the coming weeks as the disease spreads “exponentially” through Liberia. A suspected South African EVD carrier working in Guinea and Sierra Leone just flew in to Lagos airport from Morocco. The body says two incubation periods (42 days) without cases is the standard for declaring an EVD outbreak over in a particular location. It is therefore mind-boggling that the Federal Government would succumb to pressure from a set of people whose primary motive is to protect their pecuniary interest. These are the same people that threw caution to the wind and decided to organise Summer Schools for children in spite of the looming threat of Ebola. But it is the duty of parents to make sure that they do not act contrary to the best interests of their children. This is why the position of the Nigeria Union Teachers to resist the resumption order if adequate measures to ensure the safety of their schools are not implemented is commendable.

Although there are plans to put some teachers through some crash programme to be able to handle any emergency, it is doubtful if any such step would be sufficient under the circumstances. By their nature, children are playful; they cannot be relied upon to observe such precautionary measures as are generally expected of adults, including abstention from personal contact with their mates.

Imagine a situation where just one infected child walks into a school; it will certainly be like a time bomb. Not only are the other schoolchildren threatened, their siblings and parents at home are not likely to be spared. The bus ride to and fro the school will cease to be a jolly ride, but a vehicle for the virus to spread. That is an epidemic waiting to happen, given the obvious difficulties that would be encountered in trying to identify and isolate primary and secondary contacts.

The case of Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian-American who imported the virus into the country, has provided an insight into how tricky tracing the contacts could be. Aside from the pressure mounted by the private school owners, the Minister of Health, Onyebuchi Chukwu, who has defended the new date, must have been persuaded based on his perceived assumption that the coast was clear for learning to resume. In one of his daily briefings since the outbreak of the EVD on July 20, he said that the situation had been brought under control. He reportedly said, “We have contained the situation; Ebola is no longer in the streets anywhere in Nigeria.”

He completely missed the point. No sooner had he said that than a new suspected case was reported at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, where a sick female student confessed to having made contact with Iyke Enemuo, the Port Harcourt medical doctor who died of Ebola after secretly treating an infected diplomat. She has however tested negative. In a new update, WHO said that as of September 6, 4,269 cases and 2,288 deaths have been reported in the current outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. In Senegal, one case has been confirmed. There is also the case of about 50 suspected patients who reportedly escaped surveillance in Port Harcourt and moved into Abia State. How are Nigerians sure that cases such as these will not continue to pop up where unexpected?

Nigeria has a responsibility because of her population to ensure that Ebola does not get out of hand the way it has done in the West African states of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The population of those three countries is not up to that of Lagos alone. Simon Hay, a University of Oxford professor, who is set to publish a scientific analysis of the changing face of Ebola outbreaks, said, “Nigeria is the one I look at with great concern. If things started to get out of control in Nigeria, I really think that, because of its connectedness and size, that could be quite alarming.” He is right.

That is why even the Nigeria Medical Association, whose members have been at the receiving end of the outbreak, has called for caution. With all due respect to the minister, who is an accomplished doctor, there is no way the voice of the NMA can be ignored in matters concerning health. If it says that it is yet unsafe to unleash children on schools, so should it be.

Even other countries that have not recorded any Ebola outbreak have been taking precautions. In Ghana, for instance, where many Nigerian students have reported for the new academic session, they have been quarantined, despite already fulfilling the condition of undergoing an Ebola test before resumption. They are expected to remain there for 21 days, which is the cycle for the disease to manifest.

While reacting to teachers’ fear of the September 22 resumption date, Chukwu described their attitude as irrational, lacking in scientific basis. If the minister is of the opinion that there must be a scientific basis for further extension of the resumption date, then there is the need to respect scientific methods on this matter all the way. If government wishes to alleviate, rather than aggravate, the deadly pathogens, its only valid course is to err on the side of utmost caution. For parents and guardians, the safety of their children and wards is too important to be risked on the advice of a ministry that acted too slowly to prevent Ebola reaching here in the first place.

As far as the Constitution is concerned, the Minister’s statement does not represent finality; the states have the final word on the resumption question. For the states – especially Lagos and Rivers – it is ultimately at their discretion to permit resumption of schools only when they are reasonably sure of the safety of their people.

Source: Punch

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