As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to dominate public policy agenda across the globe, a top issue on this agenda currently is how to rationally review the subsisting lockdown policy that is impacting negatively on the economic prosperity of nations and lives of their citizens. Surely no government wants her citizens to die so easily either through coronavirus itself or ‘hunger-virus’ due to prolonged lockdown of the economy. Across the world, the subsisting lockdown has been generating palpable restiveness, some mildly expressed (through non-violent protests) while some others have manifested through violent demonstrations. In some countries (like Nigeria for instance), youth restiveness has given rise to daring street-level armed robbery attacks on many homes, breaking of shops and looting of goods, and other acts of hooliganism such as attacking of lorries carrying food items meant as palliatives for the people. As a result of these backlashes, governments across the world are reconsidering the lockdown policy towards opening the economy once again.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced a lockdown exit plan to reopen schools, shops among others. In the United States, President Donald Trump has equally announced his lockdown phased exit plans for opening up of the economy. The various states in the US are given the responsibility to decide when and how to implement the policy based on unique circumstances. The European Union is also not left out, as it has prepared a lockdown exit strategy which it expects member states to follow in a more coordinated approach.
It was against the background of all these, that the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced six conditions for ending the COVID19 lockdown. The conditions are meant to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 and stop its dangerous spread which will reverse some of the hard won gains so far. Nations are expected to meet the conditions before announcing the lifting of the lockdown order in their different jurisdictions.
Nigeria is still in the lockdown mode and appears not to have reached her peak yet. New cases of infections are on the rise with community infections emerging as worrying threat. But as the Buhari administration strategises on its exit plan at the end of the two weeks’ lockdown extension (the President announced on Monday April 13, 2020, for Lagos and Ogun states, as well as the FCT, Abuja), it is necessary to reflect on what should be the likely lockdown exit policy for educational institutions.
Like the markets, churches, mosques, entertainment houses, and other crowd-pulling events, educational institutions are potential high risk areas for spread of COVID-19. It was on account of this fear (in the first place) that the federal government wisely ordered the closure all tertiary institutions for a period of one month with effect from Monday, March 23, 2020. The government also ordered the closure of all Unity Schools latest by Friday, March 26, 2020. The various state governments also closed educational institutions in their domain. As of now, these institutions are to remain closed until the governments review their lockdown order, probably when the spread of the virus has been reasonably contained.
But whatever is the case, the decision to review the lockdown policy or announce the reopening of educational institutions would surely be made some day. And so when this decision ‘comes to become’ (apologies to K.O. Mbadiwe of blessed memory), a customised well-thought out lockdown exit policy for these institutions needs to be put in place. Some important questions that need to be considered are: First, how would the exit policy address the modus operandi of lecturers-students interactions in educational institutions? For example, how would interaction patterns in the crowded lecture rooms and halls in tertiary institutions be made, to conform to the social/physical distancing etiquette? Secondly, with respect to secondary schools, how would existing crowded dormitories (without additional ones) cope with social/physical distancing requirements? Thirdly, how would pupils in primary schools be controlled by adults who may be carrying the virus?
Fourthly, how would the school buses protect pupils from one another to avoid easy spreading of the virus that might have been contacted from their parents? Would the children for instance, be made to carry and use sanitizers while using the school buses? Fifthly, can our poorly-funded educational institutions be in the position to make sanitizers available to hundreds of their students and pupils bearing in mind the standard hygiene protocols that are required? Sixthly, would enough water and soaps be provided for regular washing of hands in line with the hygiene protocol?
Seventhly, how would examinations be conducted in crowded lecture halls with question papers and answer scripts distributed by lecturers who may unknowingly spread the virus to their students and vice-verse? Would enough sanitizers be made available for the invigilators to use before the distribution of examination scripts? Would the sanitizers be enough for use at the end of the examinations shortly before collecting back the answer scripts? And lastly and more importantly, how would students conduct and protect themselves from one another in the lecture and examination halls, hostels/halls of residence, libraries, cafeterias/canteens, worship places, Pentecostal fellowship places that are proliferated on campuses, business centres that also exist everywhere on campuses, etc? These crucial public health-related questions need to be seriously considered and factored into the lockdown exit or reopening policy by the federal government and sent to all public and private educational institutions across the country. The various state governments should do the same for the educational institutions they regulate.
The various questions in the preceding paragraphs bring to mind the issue of inadequate infrastructure, facilities and working materials in both public and private educational institutions across the country. The federal government should use this period to do the needful in improving both infrastructure and other facilities in tertiary institutions. Some of the questions also raise the issue of how education regulatory authorities would ensure that private schools comply with the policy in the post-lockdown period? The federal and state governments have to think deep in rolling out guidelines to stop the rapid spread of COVID-19 in educational institutions during the post-lockdown era. The danger educational institutions pose in the rapid spread of the COVID-19, in the absence of effective containment strategy is better imagined than experienced. I know it will be easy to direct the various educational institutions to develop and roll out their own lockdown exit strategies but even at that, there is need for policy directive in the form of standard guidelines which the various institutions can adopt or adapt to serve their unique environment or circumstances.
Prof. Obasi, a public policy expert teaches in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Abuja. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org