The past one and a half years have been a nightmare for Bangladesh, and the entire globe as life and livelihood have been paralysed because of the deleterious effect of the lethal coronavirus. Despite the tremendous efforts of physicians, researchers, and public health experts, it is not yet clear when we would completely overcome the destruction triggered by the pandemic. Amid other demoralising news, one positive news is that several companies have come out with vaccines capable of safeguarding people from contamination of this virus at a rate of around 80% to 90%. Unfortunately, no vaccine could guarantee 100% protection against the virus.
The disaster of the fatal virus has hit most sectors, including health, economy, education and business of most of the countries most severely. The Government of Bangladesh, like those of other countries, is still striving to develop an integrated strategy to safeguard the academic life of students, even though it has been dealing with the health and economic effects of the fatal illness quite successfully. Therefore, the education sector has emerged as one of the hard-hit sectors by the pandemic.Under the credible leadership of Honourable Prime Minister-Sheikh Hasina, the government of Bangladesh could manage to forecast the necessity of vaccinating citizens well in advance. Therefore, they signed an agreement with the Serum Institute, India, to buy 30 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The vaccination process was progressing well as per the government's plan at such a time when the majority of the counties of the world could not even manage a single dose of vaccine for their citizens. However, the process got shuttered with the Indian government's enforcement of the export restriction on vaccines due to the devastation of the second wave of virus that has severely affected India.
Finding no other alternative, the Bangladesh government had to search for alternative sources of vaccines. They also signed agreements with China and Russia to buy Sinopharm and Sputnik-V Covid-19 vaccines, respectively. The first consignment carrying five lakh doses of Sinophram vaccine as a gift from the Chinese government has already reached the country, and six lakh of more doses are expected to arrive soon. The government has already administered the Sinopharm vaccine among medical students. Since no side effect has been noticed among the recipients, the government has decided to buy 15 million doses of this vaccine from China.
When it concerns vaccination management, the responsible authority should develop a comprehensive plan eying on the catastrophic effect of the lethal virus on our educational institutions. The public health experts have advised not to reopen educational institutions if the contamination rate does not go beyond 5%, which has been acknowledged by our honourable Prime Minister and Education Minister. Both of them have stated that the government does not want to compromise the health issue of the students.
We know that there is a higher concentration of Covid-19 infection at the city level, and thereby the rate of contamination at the village level is relatively low. During the early days of administering the vaccines, the frontline workers were given the top priority. Over the period, the age limit of the vaccine recipients was relaxed to extend the coverage among the general people. Meanwhile, the government has made it clear that they would reopen the universities after vaccinating the students. A list of students has been prepared and sent to the health ministry for consideration by the education ministry. Different newspaper sources have indicated that several public universities are yet to complete their students' enrolment for vaccination. Therefore, the university authority must confirm that all of their students are enrolled in the list at the soonest possible time.
The government should prioritise university students for vaccination as soon as the vaccines are made available. Once the students would be vaccinated, the universities could resume their activities. We should bear in mind that most students of public universities stay on campus in different student halls. Even those who do not stay in the halls but stay in various privately owned housing with their fellows and friends. The living condition is not quite hygienic in most of the places due to overcrowding of students. Therefore, there is no scope to take any risk by reopening the universities before completing the students' vaccination.
Since the vaccines are still not available for children below 18 years, we should continue online schooling for the primary and secondary students. We must bear in mind that we would not be able to ensure Covid-19 security protocol at our schools. It would be a daunting task to ensure that children would use face masks, wash hands frequently and maintain social distance. Therefore, if we rush to reopen educational institutions before vaccinations, it may turn into a catastrophe as we have found community transmission of Indian variant in different districts adjustment to Indian borders.Moreover, public health experts have cautioned that the second wave of this virus infects young people. Therefore, we should not expose our children to Corona contamination by sending them to schools. A group of public health experts have advised the government to consider reopening schools in those districts where the contamination are has remained under control. This will not be a good decision as it will frustrate students of other districts and do injustice to them. However, the government could only consider reopening schools and colleges for students attending grade 10 to 12 as they are comparatively older than students attending the primary and elementary classes of secondary education.
We know that around one million students study at different private and public universities across the country. Half of these students studies in public universities. Since most private universities have transformed their academic activities online, we should first concentrate on the students of public universities. In the meantime, our Prime Minister instructed the responsible authority to prioritise the vaccination of university students, which is a piece of positive news regarding the higher education of the country.
The execution of the Prime Minister's instruction is the only way to salvage our higher education sector. We must bear in mind that the longstanding absence from the teaching-learning environment may create fatigue and depression among the students and force them to get involved in different anti-social activities. Meanwhile, many have identified the prolonged absence of the students from the academic environment as one of the strongest facilitators of the expansion of youth gangs in the country. Therefore, in consultation with the ministry of education, the health ministry should chalk out a comprehensive plan of vaccination prioritising the students to enable them to resume academic life. The authority should consider vaccinating students from the university and go down to the other levels of education. Only then we will be able to overcome the challenges posed by Covid-19 on our education sector.
The writer is a Professor of Public Administration at the University of Rajshahi.