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OP-ED: Long Covid and the education of children

  • Published at 09:50 pm June 24th, 2021
Children Covid-19 School Shut

Young or old, Covid-19 has hurt us all. But in different ways

"You are becoming very lazy in your old age. You know that I needed that written 1971 memory today.” 

This is what a young friend said recently when I had failed to fulfil a promise that I had made. I apologized and tried to explain that the Covid infection affects different people in different ways, and some three months after becoming ill, I am still feeling the effects of what is now called “long Covid.”

I feel frustrated that after a good seven-hour sleep and a modest breakfast, I want to and need to sleep again. Completely “wiped out,” tired, fatigued, however you like to describe it. After continuous days of feeling the same, I began to feel useless, and that is when I began to feel the mental strain that the pandemic has been putting on so many people. 

It is like living with a new chronic illness. One day I felt fit enough to go for a walk around the nearby Gulshan Park. Two or three years ago, I would walk briskly round the park 10 times, which translated into 7km. Now, after one round, I was so exhausted that I gave up and needed to take a rickshaw home.

The lack of exercise causes another worry and mental pressure, because I have added weight. At the same time that I feel I need to control my weight, I am advised to “eat well so that your body can recover.” This is enough to drive anyone a little bit mad. 

Then I try to shake myself out of any kind of depression by remembering what someone said to me: “Don’t be so bloody miserable! You are not dead, you are not on a ventilator, you are very lucky to be alive.” What is so difficult to handle is when you feel near normal one day and like “death warmed up” the next. It is indeed very depressing.

How children have suffered

However, when I come to know of the difficulties being faced by others, my problems pale into insignificance. A couple of days ago, at about 9:30pm, I phoned my home helper to find out how her seven-year-old son was doing, as he had been sick with a fever and cough. “He is doing an exam,” she told me to my surprise. 

Only at night are children able to use their parent’s smartphone, so online exams take place at night. Every time the education authorities postpone the opening of education centres, they say: “Online education will continue.” 

Are they quite mad? Do all the families in rural areas have internet access? It is no exaggeration that the coronavirus pandemic has been described as the “biggest disruptor of education in a generation.” In addition, Unicef in March this year warned of a “mental health alert for 332 million children linked to Covid-19 lockdown policies.”

Many months ago, the government said that vaccines would be given to teachers on a priority basis. What happened? In addition, what have the educational authorities been doing up and down the country for over a year, to prepare for when schools and colleges can reopen? Have they made sure that sufficient toilets, water supply, and washbasins have been installed in all educational establishments? 

Thousands of schools, particularly in rural areas, could have been running safely in the open air, under trees over the winter months. The children could have been taught about the Covid-19 virus and how to handle it, and they could have become valuable child ambassadors, spreading the correct messages among their families and in their communities. 

These opportunities have been ignored by incompetent government officials. The Ministry of Education has been, and is, responsible for untold mental damage inflicted on the children and, of course, the alarming rise of child marriages. Who will hold the government to account?

It is only the children of richer families who have enough smartphones or tabs to access online education, and so this is another way to make the gap between the rich and the poor even greater than it is now, but nobody seems to care. During a pandemic such as Covid-19, educational institutions should always be the last institutions to close and the first to open. 

Realizing the plight of children’s education helps me to stop feeling sorry for myself and to focus on the problems of others, and it is hoped that some practical common sense can permeate into the Ministry of Education! 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship. Julian has also been honoured with the award of the OBE for services to development in Bangladesh.

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