With no clear plan for mass-scale vaccination in sight, Bangladesh ranks only behind Panama and El Salvador in terms of the greatest number of days of full school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic according to a report titled "Covid-19 And School Closures - One Year of Education Disruption" published by UNICEF.
The report states that Bangladesh has had 198 full days of school closures since the pandemic began last year. Bangladesh also ranks only behind Brazil when it comes to the number of students who have missed at least three-quarters or almost all classroom instructions time since March 2020, as per the same report.
Bangladesh had a great start among developing countries in terms of launching a campaign to vaccinate the population and keeping the number of Covid-19 infections and deaths low. After India's Serum Institute stopped exporting vaccines to Bangladesh, the country's vaccination drive almost went dormant. Thanks to an initiative by the foreign minister, Bangladesh managed very quickly to revive the vaccine supply chain by agreeing to import from China's Sinopharm through a G-to-G agreement. The vaccine has an efficacy rate of around 80 per cent and is used in UAE, Pakistan and China. Momentarily, due to the disruption in Covid-19 vaccine supply, Bangladesh has fallen behind when it comes to keeping educational institutes open for in-person instructions mainly because the vaccination rate in the country is still extremely low for such a large population.
Several surveys have revealed that a very small percentage of the student population can conduct online classes due to lack of affordability and availability of broad band services and necessary equipment at home. Bangladesh Youth Leadership Centre (BYLC), supported by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) and UKAid conducted a survey last year that showed almost 50 per cent of the students thought online classes cannot match their physical counterparts in terms of effectiveness. The poor students are getting impacted disproportionately.
Bangladesh has 482,000 teachers at the school level and an estimated over 23,000 university level teachers in the country. The government has made it a priority to vaccinate all the teachers, even those under 40. Recent statements by the ministry of health suggest that majority of the teachers have been inoculated.
However, less is known about government initiatives to improve infrastructure including fixing ventilation systems, placing physical barriers where required, deploy exhaust systems to increase outside air circulation etc., in academic institutions across the country.
With over 40 million students at various levels in different educational institutions, the stakes are high for the nation when it comes to determining how and when to open for in-person instructions. Although covid-19 health risk for children and young adults is relatively lower, this group nevertheless can potentially be spreaders of the disease. Thus in-person instruction does introduce significant risk to parents with existing health conditions and elderly relatives at home.
Out of a population of 160 million, only around 4 million people received two shots in the country. The country is desperately trying to import vaccines from alternative sources after delaying the authorisation of vaccines from other sources.
The biggest decision for the government of course is whether to open the education system to in-class instructions without vaccinating the population first to an acceptable degree.
Both the covid related infection and death rates in Bangladesh are among the lowest in the world. However, these low rates can be partially explained by the very low covid tests in the country-- only ahead of Afghanistan in the region.
Already, India and Pakistan have ramped up mass-scale vaccinations in their respective countries. India has been averaging 1.6 million doses per day. Pakistan is targeting 500,000 doses from current 200,000 doses per day.
Many developed countries have tried opening in-class instructions in schools only to shut down when infection rates increased. Countries that are showing promise in this regard are those that have inoculated most of their population. Without a substantial percentage of the population inoculated, it remains to be seen whether Bangladesh can safely open all schools at the touch of a magic switch especially considering the presence of deadly Indian variants in the country.
A very slow, phase-wise opening of schools for in-class instructions in targeted low infection and low risk neighbourhoods may be the only option to test and verify before opening schools nationwide, especially for one of the most densely populated countries in the planet.
A commentary published on July 6, 2019 in Clinical Infectious Diseases that was co-signed by 239 scientists, clinicians, and engineers recommended US health officials to recognise the possibility of airborne transmission. A day later, the WHO officially announced that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 can spread via aerosols. Both US CDC and WHO have accepted that Covid-19 is airborne-- meaning, poor ventilation in confined spaces is one of the primary sources for the spread of the disease.
Air conditioning without fresh air dosing as such is the main enemy. Most of the air conditioning systems in Bangladesh are either split or window types. Especially, split types rely on 100 per cent recirculated air in cooling premises. Unless the vents are opened, window types also expose us to the same risks.
That is why we are not seeing many garments workers working in ventilated spaces without air cooling getting infected during summer months. Same goes for slums in the country, especially during warmer months. During winter of course we shut windows to keep homes warm triggering a potential increase in the rate of infections. Most education institutes in Bangladesh however don't have air-conditioning, providing the government with a unique window of opportunity to open schools at least on a test basis, especially while the warmer weather lasts.
We also have many outdoor spaces within the campus and in rural areas where classes can be held relatively safely with social distancing in place. Initially, schools and universities can be allowed to hold outdoor activities, even certain labs and classes to gradually develop confidence of school/university administration and collect valuable data nationally.
Private schools and universities with air-conditioned premises must improve their infrastructure to ensure sufficient dosing of fresh air to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spread. HEPA filters may be used to improve safety even further. Masks alone, especially in poorly ventilated spaces, will not prevent or reduce infection rates. Government must have separate set of rules for holding classes in air-conditioned spaces. Few schools and at least one university in the country have already implemented these safety measures during the pandemic.
Data show that infection rates vary greatly in different parts of the country. As such government can target localities that are lower risk-prone when prioritising school opening. Such localisation strategies can offer containment options in case infection rate does go up in a particular area.
While few vaccines have been approved for children, university students who generally have older parents can be inoculated using the brands currently available in Bangladesh. In fact, many universities in US have mandated student vaccination as pre-requisite for returning to campus.
We really don't have the luxury to keep our educational institutes closed to in-classroom instructions much longer as mass vaccination may take years. However, a phase-wise approach that combines initial outdoor instructions, social distancing, improving ventilation and localisation can help us start on the path to normalcy while mass scale vaccination ramps up in the country.
Javed Hosein is an electrical engineer by training. He is the Managing Director of
Galentek and Trustee of IUB. [email protected]