Uganda should open schools NOW

Our friend James has been at home from school for 3 months. His home situation is tough and while he’s been off school he got in with the wrong crowd, was taken to the police station and threatened with prison. He’s currently farming in the village learning nothing. Coronavirus has his life course is now teetering on the edge when  it was on the right track. All because schools are still closed.

Uganda’s decision to keep schools closed may be one of the worst decisions that the government has made in their recent history, yet few people are complaining. While the IMF and World Bank are lining the pockets of Uganda’s corrupt government, I haven’t heard of any call or any pressure from them or others in the international community pressuring Uganda to re-open their schools. There isn’t much complaint locally either, in the news or on the streets. It’s strange that barely anyone is protesting against a decision which will un-necessarily hurt Ugandans on a huge scale for years to come.

Before I start this thinly veiled rant well reasoned blog, I actually agreed with the decision to close all Ugandan educational institutions back in March. At the time, Covid was wreaking havoc around the globe and we didn’t know how it might affect Uganda. It was a bold, early decision that seemed prudent. But the outbreak here has not just been less severe than expected, it hasn’t even got off the ground. I’m not going to cover why exactly the outbreak might be so slow in Uganda. We really don’t know, but if you’re
interested I have mused about this elsewhere.

Coronavirus isn’t killing Ugandans’
Uganda has one of the slowest Co-vid outbreaks in the world – if you can even call it an outbreak. Only around 700 people have tested positive, and not one person has died!

Let me repeat that, not one person has died.

There is only one country in the world with a larger population than Uganda  (Vietnam) which also has no deaths. They have already re-opened their schools

To put this in context, in the 3 month period of Covid malaria may have infected around 3,000,000 Ugandans and killed 5000 people (estimated from global burden of disease). I tried to make a graph to compare the burden of the two conditions, but it didn’t work because the scale difference was so big. It’s kind of like those pictures where you compare the size of the Sun to the earth.

Malaria coronavirus

Yet out of fear of a disease which hasn’t killed one person we still have to wait one month to find out when schools are opening, or if they will open this year at all.

But why is closing schools such a big deal? If it can help prevent the spread of coronavirus why not be cautious? For a start we may have a year with no new doctors, nurses or teachers trained in Uganda, but the effects run far deeper. Here are just 3 of many reasons why closing schools for more than 6 months in Uganda is not just an inconvenience, but a disaster.

1) Children go BACKWARDS
Closing schools has a far more drastic effect than just lost education time. Children FORGET what they already know. This means they don’t start again where they left off, they instead have to RE-LEARN what they previously knew, but have now forgotten. This means that after 6 months off school, it might take another 2 or 3 months just to get back to their previous level. If Uganda closes their schools for 9 months, it may be equivalent to more than a year of lost education. This problem has been recognized even in countries like America, where unlikely Uganda most children are able to be home schooled.

2) INEQUALITY is exacerbated
Richer kids (especially in Kampala), can still learn when school is off. Their parents are empowered and able to teach them. They can learn on the internet. Their parents can buy them work books and reading books. They might even not go backwards, but can still progress while they are out of school.

The situation for poor kids in the village (75% of Ugandan children) is worlds apart. Kids have either sporadic access to educational radio, or no access to learning at all. They don’t have books to write in or read from. They dig every morning to provide food for the family, then play at home. They barely learn anything new, and will go backwards. Every month schools are closed, the inequality between kids in the village and kids in Kampala becomes worse. School closures causing exacerbated inequality has been well documented around the world, by developed and developing countries alike, and in Uganda will be as bad as anywhere in the world.

There is a strong association between education level and reduced life expectancy. People with lower levels of education (primary school), live shorter lives on average than those with higher levels of education (secondary school or above). It’s impossible to prove that lower levels of education CAUSE lower life expectancy, but especially in developing countries like Uganda it makes sense that poor education means you are more likely to die younger.

Poor education leads to poverty, which means you are more likely to live in unsanitary living conditions, more likely to have poor access to healthcare, more likely to die in childbirth because you can’t reach a hospital. In Uganda even more so than richer countries where this link has been studied, less education may shorten your life. It’s entirely possible that the effect of lost education alone, may cause more lost years of life than coronavirus.

Education and life expectancy

Figure from “Netherlands, health systems review: 2016” European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies

Other countries are reopening schools

The Co-vid situation in South Africa is ominous, with colder weather, large urban slums and an Obese population paving the way for a far worse outbreak than we will ever have here. South Africa yesterday suffered from 3174 cases with 74 deaths.  The way things are going in Uganda, we may not reach 74 deaths from Covid this year, let alone in one day. And what are South Africa doing despite the outbreak? They are opening their schools!  Their government knows how much more important education is than perhaps preventing a handful of coronavirus deaths. South Africa’s approach is mirrored by most countries around the world. Uganda is in a small minority of countries making the tragic decision to close schools for an extended period.

A solution?

I don’t usually like to write without proposing some kind of solution. Here it’s tricky, but there’s a few actions that just might push the government to open schools sooner than they would have otherwise.

1) The international community should pressure Uganda to re-open their schools.  Large organisations who grant loans and aid like the USA, the IMF and World Bank could use their leverage to force re-opening of schools.

2) The WHO should stress the importance of education and keeping schools open. At the moment they are only doubling down on contact tracing and lockdowns. They need to recognize the public health importance of education, and publically encourage countries to open as soon as possible when outbreaks are under control.

3) Most importantly, Ugandans need to demand that their government re-opens schools. Museveni is a populist. If enough Ugandans kicked up a fuss he might consider re-opening them, as it doesn’t hurt him at all. It might not even take that much fuss! At the moment motorcycle taxis are holding demonstrations around the country, but I haven’t heard a whisper about schools, and everyone has children. Everyone is affected.

Education is the key to Uganda’s future. The benefit of opening schools now would be enormous, while the consequences of keeping them closed are monumental. Let’s not let a virus which has killed zero people further cripple the future of the country.

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