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OP-ED: Is this too much to ask?

  • Published at 09:11 pm August 5th, 2021
Empty Classrooms
The Ministry of Education needs to do better SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

We desperately need more enlightened attitudes

In three quarters of a century of life, over 50 years in the sub-continent, and a total of over 30 years in Bangladesh, I thought that I had seen, heard, and experienced it all. 

However, then just three days ago, I heard and read that, after August 11, 2021, the government was going to arrest or fine anybody over the age of 18 years who left their home without a Covid-19 vaccination certificate. This was announced after a meeting reportedly attended in person and online by other ministers and senior civil servants. 

It is extraordinary that no participant of the meeting felt able to modify or correct the statement before it was carried by all kinds of media. In any case, the statement was foolish on two counts. Firstly, only those over 25 years old had already been authorized to receive any of the designated vaccines and, secondly, it is well known that the vaccines only take effect about two weeks after the actual jab is received. 

Fortunately, however, following considerable criticism of the statement, it was retracted with the additional welcome information that all adults over 18 years of age will be eligible for vaccination.

Unfortunately, there are other instances of hastily issued misleading information. On an earlier occasion during an earlier phase of lockdowns some months ago, it was announced that the RMG factories would be allowed to stay open. Apparently, allegedly, nobody in the relevant ministries had taken steps to ensure that the banks would be open to facilitate the workings of the RMG factories. Quite unbelievable.

In addition, in more recent days, following pressure from the owners of export related factories, the government, giving very short notice, agreed that factories could open from August 1 even though a “strict lockdown” was still in place. Workers who had gone to their villages for an extended Eid holiday received sms messages and phone calls to report back to work or risk losing their jobs. 

Nobody in government had, it appears, to have thought about the transport of the workers and when, eventually, the penny dropped, buses, ferries, and launches were, reportedly, only authorized to ply for 12 hours from 12 midnight to 12 noon on that particular day. Hundreds of thousands of workers have had to spend huge amounts of money to return to their places of work. The lack of or absence of understanding and compassion by government officials is quite remarkable and unbelievable.

It is not only in the RMG sector that the government does not know whether it is coming or going. The education of our children is being completely neglected and, as has been recently pointed out, educational institutions have already been closed for some 500 days. 

Many months ago, it was announced that teachers would be vaccinated on a priority basis. In addition, it was announced that university students would be vaccinated before the universities reopen. What has actually happened? 

It appears that the Education Ministry is not aware of the damage that their lack of action is having. As a result, there are reports, for instance, that about 3,000 kindergarten-level schools have closed down and around 350,000 teachers have become unemployed. 

Whenever the Ministry of Education extends the closure of educational institutions, it says “online classes will continue.” Have all families got sufficient smartphone/laptop/wi-fi facilities? Of course not. In addition, as an example, I heard that a Class 2 student at a reputed private school would in normal times receive three hours of tuition a day. Now just one hour online divided into three subjects: Bangla, English, Maths. The monthly fee is still the same. Sometimes the class does not take place due to “connectivity problems.” 

As Unicef and Unesco have said: “Closing our schools mortgages our future for unclear benefits to our present. We must prioritize better. We can open schools safely, and we must.” They have also referred to a “generational catastrophe,” and it is regarded by most education experts that schools should always be “the last to close and the first to open.” 

Very sadly, many families have either lost jobs or lost income and their children have dropped out of school.

It is most regrettable also that the Ministry of Education has not been able to adopt flexible ways of working. There are many hundreds, if not thousands, of schools, particularly in rural areas, that could have been running for many months of the year in the open air but no initiative has been taken to allow this. Bureaucracy, laziness, or lack of initiative, whatever it is, the education and future of our children has been severely damaged.

We desperately need more enlightened attitudes from ministers and civil servants to face the challenges of the immediate future. Is this too much to ask? 

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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