President Ramaphosa addressed the people of South Africa last night and announced that public schools will be closing for four weeks. It is a decision that has been met with outrage and widespread criticism. But popular decisions aren’t always the right ones, so it is important that we address the merits of his decision.
In his Thursday evening address, Ramaphosa said that all public schools will close between 27 July and 24 August. Students in Grade 7 will only be given two weeks off and Grade 12s only one week.
“Taking into account the views of the various stakeholders and expert bodies, Cabinet has decided that all public schools should take a break for the next four weeks,” Ramaphosa said, as reported by News24. “As a result of the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the current academic year will be extended beyond the end of 2020.”
The other important point in his address was his announcement that government will be forming a SIU to clamp down on illegal cigarette and alcohol sales.
Parents will now have to take care of children during the daytime, adding to the extraordinary pressures they’re already facing. Many have criticised Ramaphosa for caving into trade unions, rather than heading the advice of scientists. People are upset about the power that unions hold in South Africa and the government’s willingness to bend to their will. So what exactly does the science say about what we need to do with schools in South Africa?
Schools should remain open: the sociological perspective
The argument for keeping schools open is largely based on the social conditions that lockdowns around the world have created. The Canadian Medical Association Journal provides particularly useful insights into the indirect affects of the coronavirus outbreak on children and young people, while Human Rights Watch has reaffirmed those findings and implored governments to mitigate harm and protect those most vulnerable.
The details of both reports explore the massive spike in domestic violence that the lockdown has caused. This is the result of the forced confinement that is created by the lockdown, as well as increased family stresses due to isolation, job loss and economic insecurity. Calls to helplines have doubled since lockdowns began around the world. The harm this causes for children comes in the form of increased instances of child labour, child marriages and sexual exploitation. Furthermore, child abuse goes largely unreported not only because social workers aren’t visiting at-risk children, but because teachers aren’t reporting cases of abuse.
Furthermore, as a result of the increased deaths, more children are being orphaned with many not being relocated to foster homes or extended family care. Frighteningly, the more time that children spend online, coupled with increased vulnerability brought about by the crisis around them has led to a rise in child porn and the exploitation of children by online predators.
“The risks posed by the COVID-19 crisis to children are enormous,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments need to act urgently to protect children during the pandemic, but also to consider how their decisions now will best uphold children’s rights after the crisis ends.”
Another obvious effect is what the time out of school does to children’s educational development. With academic years being disrupted and many children not having access to online material (more than half of the world’s population doesn’t have internet access), the progression of at-risk children could be irreparably disrupted. Beyond that, many children would only be able to follow good hygiene practices at school, due to a lack of sanitation facilities at home, increasing the risk of spreading coronavirus infections further.
In short, closing schools has far reaching and devastating, indirect consequences, many of which are not easily observable and may go unreported.
Schools should close: the medical perspective
No doubt, this argument will not be popular, but it is a necessary one to make. There is a prevalent myth that is perhaps the most dangerous all the misinformation that’s been circulating throughout the course of the coronavirus pandemic. The myth is that it doesn’t affect children.
Early on in the crisis, it did seem that the virus did not affect children and teenagers up to the age of 19, and that those who did contract the virus didn’t show symptoms. It was believed that children were only carriers of the virus, but invulnerable to its devastating effects.
However, as early on as March, signs of a different threat to children, which appeared to be similar to a rare medical condition called Kawasaki disease, saw children presenting symptoms such as fever, rash, reddish eyes, swollen lymph nodes and sharp abdominal pain, but not those usually associated with COVID-19, cough and shortness of breath. The frightening effects of Kawasaki disease involves a kind of toxic shock with very low blood pressure and an inability of the blood to effectively circulate oxygen and nutrients to the body’s organs. However, the condition has been diagnosed as something different and is now being dubbed Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C.
MIS-C is a particularly dangerous coronavirus side-effect that seems to present in some children, causing body parts to become inflamed and affecting vital organs including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain and eyes. It can also result in damage to coronary arteries, which can ultimately cause young children to have heart attacks or strokes.
Medical scientists are still exploring many of the details of MIS-C, of which we still have very little information or research and therefore a limited understanding of. For example, it’s unknown why it presents itself in some children and not others, with doctors currently exploring whether or not it is caused by a particular genetic predisposition.
Treatments for MIS-C, like coronavirus, are still being tested, but it appears that oxygen and IV fluids are proving effective. However, there’s no telling what the long-term effects of contracting the virus can be for children and it could take years to truly understand the nature of this new, mysterious disease.
Beyond this, the outbreak of the coronavirus has caused the WHO and other organisations to halt their vaccination programs in order to take on the more present threat. So many children are far more susceptible to contracting malaria, tuberculosis, mumps and hooping cough. And, of course, if children are at school they are at far greater risk of contracting not only COVID-19 or MIS-C, but countless other diseases that are equally life-threatening.
Not only President Ramaphosa, the people of South Africa, and the children attending our schools, but leaders and citizens of the entire world find themselves in a catch-22 situation here. Send kids to school and put their health at risk or send them home and put their social well-being at risk. It is going to be a very fine-line upon which policy makers will have to walk upon and they will have to navigate an endless wave of challenges, but the aforementioned Human Rights Watch article does make suggestions about how to limit the social effects of keeping children at home. They suggest governments to take the following measures:
- Prioritising efforts to continue education for all children, using all available technology;
- Providing economic assistance, including cash transfers, to low-income families that will be hit first and hardest, to help them meet basic needs without resorting to child labor or child marriage;
- Minimising disruptions in children’s access to essential and life-saving healthcare services;
- Increasing efforts to identify children orphaned by COVID-19 and expanding networks of extended family and foster care;
- Expanding public education, awareness campaigns, hotlines, and other services for children at risk of violence in the home or online sexual exploitation;
- Transferring children deprived of liberty to family-based care and ensuring suitable accommodation and sanitation for refugee, migrant, and internally displaced children.
So President Ramaphosa needs to be a leader right now. His decision to close schools is unpopular, it’s true. But, with our children’s best interests at heart, we need to prioritise their health first. In that regard, the president has made the correct decision and he needs to show his strength in leadership by standing by it and, if necessary, keep schools in South Africa closed for even longer.
However, he also needs to acknowledge that there are countless indirect consequences of this policy and needs to assure the South African people that he has a plan to address those issues through policies such as those mentioned above.
He needs to communicate the motives behind his decision making and explain why he is taking a particular course of action. He needs to stop using platitude after platitude to make it appear like he has things under control and give South Africans the opportunity to understand the complicated position he finds himself in, with these couple issues, and that the consequences of his decisions are completely unpredictable. He has an opportunity to do this every time he sits down in front of a camera and, as the president, he’s failed in this regard. Hopefully, he changes his tune and takes the correct action in this time where we desperately need him to.