Can we all play nice, please?
With the third round of Covid surge, educational institutions in Bangladesh are once again subjected to an extended shutdown. The purpose, we are told, is to prevent the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant. This act of concern coming from the health ministry, the primary vanguard of our well-being, could be rather puzzling, judging by their recent vaccination campaign for the same schoolchildren.
Before delving any further, let me shine some light on our tradition of discordant work practice in the public sector, especially when it comes to inter-ministerial collaboration.
You might have seen the following episode in person or on TV, read in the papers or online, or nidenpokkhe heard of it: The roads and highways department lays the finishing asphalt to make a public road usable. Everyone is happy. But a week later, the happier person is the contractor of Titas Gas, who has received a work order to dig the same road to put in pipes. We need gas, man.
But wait! An even happier person waits for his cue with even larger pipes. The Dhaka Wasa has issued a separate work order. This contractor is polite enough to move in only after the gas guy has completed his work with a not-so-finished coat on the road. Therefore, there will be more digging. And finishing. Over time, the nogorbashi are finished.
The anecdote above had to be dug up because of an unfortunate occurrence related to schoolchildren, where once again there were contradictory approaches to a common cause by two different ministries.
The education ministry spent months to plan, studied the ever-changing circumstances, learnt from other countries, trained teachers and officers, and then laid out a procedure to finally reopen schools and colleges after a long closure. Our children were protected.
During more than a year of closure, however, classes and exams had been conducted online and on television to keep the wheel of education running. The ministry was appreciably cautious about exposing students to the deadly virus. As the infection rate dropped to a somewhat tolerable level, students were allowed into classrooms physically—that, too, for two to three days per week. For the rest of the week, learning continued online.
By government order, campuses and buildings were thoroughly cleaned. At the school gates, students' body temperature was checked and their outstretched hands were sprayed with sanitiser. Mask-wearing was, of course, mandatory. Inside the classrooms, they sat at alternate desks. Safe distance and Covid protocol were mostly maintained.
It was amazing how teachers managed their students—some of them eight- to nine-year-olds—administering such a demanding task with efficiency. It was obvious that training and communication were employed methodically under the aegis of the education ministry to let everyone involved know what was expected of them. Astoundingly, this happened in tandem all across the country.
Then came the students' vaccination. In early January, the government made the jabs mandatory for those who were attending classes in person. A welcome move, no doubt, and somewhat of a thrill for students aged above 12 years. But the good news ends here, because the health ministry officials and medical professionals could not ensure precautionary measures.
There was wide-scale shoving and pushing, no one was caring about wearing masks, and shouting and exchange of red eyes were the order of the day. All of those gross delinquencies were committed by the parents of the children. Some children were understandably frightened.
What the education ministry developed and delivered after months of preparation was destroyed at one sweep by the health ministry and the medical practitioners involved—especially those who planned the school vaccination programme. The mindset of the innocent children, built over two years through massive campaigns on TV and radio, and through learning at home and school, went out the window. "Wash your hands, don't touch your face, wear a mask, avoid crowded places"—all this became a joke to them. Hopefully, the children know better.
Instead of saving lives, the school vaccination programme could prove to be a super spreader. Under the circumstances, perhaps the school students are better off without vaccines in such crowded situations. The health ministry should really try harder to get their act right.
My advice? Next time, don't allow parents or guardians into the vaccination premises. You will see the children behaving their best in the presence of their teachers. Let each school arrange vaccination of their respective students in their own premises. Medical professionals can visit the schools at appointed hours to administer the jabs.
Let's save lives together by learning from each other.
Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed is an architect and a professor, a Commonwealth scholar and a fellow, Woodbadger scout leader, Baden-Powell fellow, and a Major Donor Rotarian.