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Reopening schools; pawns in the balance

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In the game of chess, the pawns are the most in number. They are valuable, and because of their number, can be easily captured. However, if a pawn is able to evade capture from the enemy pieces and reaches the last defense line of the antagonist it can become a full vested queen. The highest aspiration of the pawn is to become a queen. The Federal Government has rescinded its earlier plan to reopen schools. This decision was the right move. Still using the metaphorical pawn, sending our children back to school in this present dispensation will be playing our children as pawns that can be captured by the virus before they reach their highest aspirations.

The Federal Government of Nigeria must strike a balance between opening schools and protecting our children from the novel coronavirus. That COVID-19 is a global health and economic crisis is a sound bite we hear every day. What we don’t hear is that this contagion is also an educational crisis especially for those in Africa and other poor-resource countries. Globally, COVID-19 has affected more than 1.5 billion pupils from pre-school to tertiary institutions. This number represents more than 91 percent of the total enrolled learners.

More than half of the world’s student population did not go to a physical school building because of the lockdown. According to UNESCO, by the 14th of April, 188 countries had closed their schools. Nigeria takes the third position with the highest number of confirmed cases in Africa. South Africa and Egypt take the first and second positions. According to UNICEF, 77 percent of children under the age of 18 years are under the anti-corona virus lockdown. The pandemic has killed more than half a million people worldwide including children and young adults. While the global data on a number of COVID-19 deaths in persons less than 18 years have not been compiled, it is safe to assume that the actual number will be higher because of limited testing and the obstacles in attributing the cause of death to COVID-19. Therefore, not all under 18 mortality due to the coronavirus were recorded as COVID-19 deaths.

In Nigeria, pre-COVID world, 10.5 million children aged 5-14 years were not in school. Similarly, before the global scourge; in north-eastern Nigeria, more than 800 schools had been closed, 496 classrooms had been destroyed and 1,392 classrooms had been damaged. These out of school numbers alone underscore the need for us to be astute in reopening our schools. According to UNICEF, before the pandemic, one in every five of the world’s out-of-school children was in Nigeria. This grim statistic is likely to worsen post-coronavirus. Today’s students are the lifeblood of Nigeria’s future. We cannot leave them in an unsafe environment because we want to play catch-up.

Before the schools can be opened, it will be beneficial if certain indicators can be given merit. These indicators give us pointers in the direction of whether it is safe to reopen schools or still stay closed. The most important of these indicators is the reproduction number or R-value. Before schools can reopen, the R-value must be less than one. The R-value is a dimensionless number. It tells us the infectiousness of the virus. It gives us an approximate numerical value of the number of people one infected person will infect. It is calculated using the number of suspected, confirmed, exposed and recovered cases. Most importantly, we want the R-value to be below one.

Two values are important in interpreting R. When it is below one, it means the virus is able to spread to less than one person even though no human being is less than one. It also means the health system is winning the battle against the virus. The virus is spreading slowly when R is less than one. The R-value can change with improved management or mismanagement of the disease.

When R is less than one, we can cautiously open up our schools and be quick to slam the cudgel of lockdown should R rise above one. If R is greater than one, it means the virus is spreading exponentially and will overwhelm the health system. If the R-value is six, it means one infected person can infect at least six people. The R-value is usually high for airborne diseases like measles. The reproduction number for measles is 15. The R-value for COVID-19 is 3 but can be 6 or even double digits.

The value of R varies based on different factors. Although we have not been told what the R-value for COVID-19 is in Nigeria, we can conclusively say it is much higher than one. The first reported case of COVID-19 was on the 27th of February. By the 28th of March, we had 97 confirmed cases and 1,337 confirmed cases by the 27th of April. On the 27th of May, Nigeria had 8,733 confirmed cases and by 27th of June, we had 24,077 confirmed cases. By the 10th of July, we had 31, 323 confirmed cases. These figures show that it took more than a month (27th February-28th March) before we had 100 confirmed cases but between 27th May-27th June, the number of cases had almost tripled in the thousands. The number of confirmed cases had increased by more than 300 percent. This shows an accelerating epidemic with a very high reproduction number. Further, in the daily briefings of the Presidential Task Force, we have not been given the data on the fatalities if any and recoveries of the persons under the age of 24, under the age of 18 and persons under the age of 10.

These demographics would have helped us in our preparation to reopen. If a particular age group is especially vulnerable, we may tweak certain reopening options for that affected age group. The WHO has not included the airborne route in the transmission SARS COV-2. More than 239 scientists from 32 countries wrote to the global health custodian to include airborne in the transmission of the novel coronavirus. The 194 -country health body listed droplet of an infected person from coughs, sneezes or talks and touching of contaminated surfaces as the modes of transmission of the novel coronavirus on its website.

A person can get infected if he is within one meter of an infected person. Scientists have concluded that the emerging virus is transmissible through aerosols. Therefore, there is a need to revise the containment efforts. Aerosols are air particles. They are smaller droplets and can be carried by air through distances longer than one meter, so the farther you are from the infected person’s droplet, the lesser your chances of getting infected. The big droplets fall within one meter of an infected person. One meter is the recommended required minimum distance we must keep apart from each other to prevent the big droplet from reaching us. There is still so much unknown about the transmission of the virus. A WHO team has gone to China to prepare for the investigation of the origin of the virus in Wuhan, China. The virus lives comfortably inside bats. However, between the bat and human, scientists are not certain of the animal that infected humans.

Despite a global race to develop a vaccine, we still do not have one. And if a vaccine is developed, scientists are not certain, the vaccine will give a life-long immunity or if it would be a seasonal immunity and newly composed vaccines will have to be developed every year. This scenario can play out if the novel coronavirus keeps mutating. Presently, researchers have discovered that one-third of the viral genome that hit Europe is not the same as the one that touched China. The virus is obviously mutating and the mutant strain is more infectious than the initial strain. It can take 12-18 months before a vaccine is ready. The vaccine must be safe, be able to prompt antibodies and be reproducible in large quantities. The vaccine must also be globally accessible and available.
To be continued tomorrow.


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