By Kabanda Mwansa
It is common knowledge that every government has to formulate and implement practical measures to protect its citizens against the Corona Virus that is spreading so rapidly across the globe. It is the responsibility of every government to devise concrete actions that will give hope and confidence to its citizenry. However, the pre-mature closing of public schools with only three weeks before they go into the recess is not one of the solutions that the Zambian government should have opted for. If anything, especially in remote areas, school children make effective agents of information dissemination to people that have limited access to current affairs, as they act as both mediators and interpreters of diverse public information. Consequently, the closure of public schools in Zambia will only disadvantage pupils from poor families, as parents from the well to do families will always find a way, mostly by engaging part-time teachers to teach their children behind closed doors.
The decision-makers did not make the right ruling of consulting various stakeholders in this fight against the Corona Virus, but were apparently pressured to emulate what other countries are doing. Seemingly, the Zambian decision-makers have been alarmed by the happenings in Europe that have been broadcasted globally by their influential media houses. By the time Zambia made a drastic decision to close public schools, the country never even had any case to refer to as the basis for the decision. If anything, African countries like Zambia should be in the forefront to educate European countries on how to deal with virus outbreaks, and not the other way round.
Zambia has in years battled with the Cholera epidemic, while also shielding itself from the Ebola Virus agitating in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. These two viruses are more deadly, and much more complicated to contain than the Corona Virus, thus Zambian experts have amassed great experience in how to deal with such viruses. Therefore, instead of copy-pasting how Europe is dealing with the Corona epidemic, Zambia should have been the one exporting knowledge on how to deal with such epidemics using the Cholera and Ebola experiences. The countries’ Epidemiologists should be at the forefront of using local experience in the country to scale it at the global level to help other needy countries experiencing such calamities for the first time in centuries. For example, the Chinese doctors that have battled the Corona virus in Wuhan, China have now shifted camp to Italy because they have gained enough experience from their situation.
One of the reasons most European countries closed public schools or rather shifted the learning spaces from schools to home was that, schools in most countries in Europe were just re-opening after a one-week winter break when the Corona Virus struck. As per European tradition during this school winter break, there is overwhelming cross border holidays by families, thus there was always going to be a big chance of pupils\families importing the Corona Virus from across the borders when schools re-opened.
Against this background, most European governments decided that school was going to be done online using different media platforms. Needless to mention here that most European schools have online learning spaces already established, thus, it was quite easy to make a decision that schools be physically closed, but remain open remotely through online interaction between pupils and teachers. This is also true for countries that have done the same in Africa, such as Egypt, Rwanda, and South Africa. These countries’ local technology is quite advanced such that even if public schools have been ordered to close, learning will somehow still take place through technological platforms deliberately installed by the respective governments.
Unfortunately, for Zambia, decisions were made without any consideration for the poor children who will now be languishing in the congested homes without any deliberate alternative on the part of the government. In some of the under-served communities in Zambia, the children are better off being at school because the situation at home is much worse than being at school. For example, in some under-served communities, it is quite difficult to get clean water to wash hands multiple times as recommended by the WHO, households can be more crowded and in some cases, up to 12 people will share a small house.
Thus, self-quarantine and social isolation as it is being propagated by Western methods is not practically possible in these under-served communities, and other high-density areas of the big cities. The pupils in these areas are more at risk of catching and spreading the Coronavirus if they stayed home than if they remained in school. This gives a greater opportunity for public institutions like boarding schools in the country to work as isolation centres where pupils are shielded from the rest of the community with strict rules of guiding the in and out human traffic.
As at now, it is common knowledge that Zambia does not have any domestically transmitted Corona Virus case, meaning that schools especially boarding schools should have been kept intact without exposing them to people that have traveled. Sending these pupils home will only expose them to the virus now that it is being imported into the country through people that have travelled to affected regions.
It is a fact that this virus originated from Asia, then to Europe and other parts of the world, meaning that what Zambia needed was to first impose a strict policy measure to cramp down on the travelling between Zambia and these affected regions. But alas! the people that should have been in the forefront to do this at the time when Zambia needed it most were busy on a campaign trail in Chilubi. Zambia needed to act decisively then when the virus was detected in China by imposing travel restrictions on the citizens and foreigners arriving from these countries.
Now, the policy makers want to show concern that they are on top of the game by closing schools, because that is the easiest of the measures to undertake. If the policy makers had consulted widely from the various stakeholders locally, then it should have been the independent private schools, the colleges and the universities that should have closed first before the public schools are affected. The independent private schools should have closed first because that is where the vulnerability of contracting the Corona Virus is higher because the parents in these schools have a greater probability of travelling to and from the affected regions. A child at Mabumbu Primary School located on the edge of the Bulozi Plain in Limulunga, should not be denied the chance to go to school because some parent at Lake Road Primary School in Lusaka had travelled to Paris, thus bringing the virus along.
Apart from the probability of parents travelling to the epicentres of the virus, pupils in these independent private schools have alternative learning spaces such as media that they can still utilize as opposed to pupils in public schools. After all, the decision makers have their children in these independent private schools, and seemingly care less if learning in public schools is effective or not. Using media as an alternative learning space is also true for the public and private colleges and universities. In these institutions, the teacher\student interaction can still take place using internet alternatives as opposed to the public schools.
Pupils in public schools have been given very limited information on the way forward, and how to navigate the Corona Virus period. For example, the authorities are not emphasising to the pupils that they are sending home, the importance of staying fit and positive. Pupils that have been told to stay home must be encouraged instead, to exercise a lot so that they cultivate higher levels of physical fitness and a positive mind-set. This is because it is scientifically reported that the virus is mostly killing people whose immune system is already weakened by lack of physical fitness, and the presence of other ailments.
Therefore, some physical exercises as opposed to sitting inactive in isolation could make a huge difference. Pupils should equally be encouraged to walk\jog from point A to point B when it concerns reasonable distances as opposed to using congested buses or trains. Thus, it is not just a question of sending pupils home, it is important to also give them such vital information as to stay fit, with a positive mentality, as opposed to fear and stress.
Generally, apart from the measures that have now been implemented as regards to travellers coming into the country from abroad. There is also need for the authorities to devise measures to check all travellers travelling between Lusaka and the rest of the country, and the Copperbelt and the rest of the country, or\and restricting travel internally.
This is because Lusaka and the Copperbelt have a higher probability of people contracting the virus because of the density of the populations in these areas, and having more people travelling abroad. For the rest of the country, the travel history remains low and containment is the most appropriate strategy, as efforts to engage with local community leaders as stakeholders before a full-blown crisis occurs in Zambia is key. As the only cases that have been reported so far in the country came from people who travelled back from abroad, then unity of purpose to prevent the virus from engulfing our already limping socio-economic landscape is the only option. However, it is too early to close public schools without a wide consultation from various stakeholders.
The author is a Zambian social commentator and a PhD research fellow at the Centre for Child and Youth Competence Development at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences.