The inevitable arrival in india of the new highly transmissible Omicron variant of the novel Coronavirus, aka Covid-19, which since it mysteriously originated in Wuhan, China back in November 2019 and surfaced in the subcontinent in early 2020 forcing an unprecedented sealing of industry, business and commerce for over six months, has set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi and state capitals. And rightly so, because the US and Europe report a huge spurt in Covid infections and hospitalisations owing to the highly contagious characteristic of the Omicron variant. Epidemiologists and virologists expect a surge in Omicron induced Covid infections in end January/February in India.
Quick decisions taken to step up the vaccination drive ensuring that all citizens are administered two jabs of the provenly effective Covishield or Covaxin vaccines, and that frontline medical workers and the elderly are given a booster third dose even as masking, social distancing and hygiene norms are strictly enforced, are necessary initiatives to manage the imminent Covid third wave. However, the typical knee-jerk reaction of the Delhi state government to re-order shutdown of all schools even as Omicron infections in the national capital region are still in three digit figures, is unwarranted panic.
Especially when set against the reality that India’s pre-primary and primary school children are just emerging from the longest schools lockdown worldwide of 70-75 weeks. These children as the annual ASER surveys of the Pratham Education Foundation have been highlighting for over a decade, were already suffering declining learning outcomes before the pandemic.
Therefore, shutting them out of school again and compounding their deprivation of critically important foundational education is tantamount to jeopardising the future of over 200 million children. More so since the preponderance of medical and pandemic research indicates that youngest children are least susceptible to severe infection from Covid-19 and its variants.
According to Dr. Joseph Allen, director of healthy buildings program at Harvard University, the rate of hospitalisation of school-age children due to Covid infection is 1 in 100,000. Although similar data about the impact of the virus on youngest children is unavailable in India, anecdotal evidence suggests that they are the least susceptible age group, although it’s possible that while they may be asymptomatic, they could infect susceptible elders at home.
However, this distant possibility doesn’t justify additional lockdown of early childhood and primary schools. The risk to the health of youngest children needs to be balanced against learning loss which could blight their future advancement and sentence them to eking out adult lives as unskilled low paid labour.
Instead of decreeing total closure of all education institutions in time of the Omicron variant, state governments should permit in-class learning at least twice per week for youngest children. To sacrifice the lives and livelihood of the next generation for the total safety and comfort of elders is unjust and iniquitous.