Universities are going to reopen:What are the challenges ahead?
Dr Mohammad Didare Alam Muhsin
Happily, the country has coped with the latest outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. Since April-May this year, the country has faced two severe outbreaks of COVID-19. In the first phase, the surge was due to the South African or beta variant. Since mid-March, the rate of infection has been rising sharply. For the first time in the country, the number of daily cases exceeded seven thousand and the number of deaths one hundred. The detection rate compared to the number of tests has been 20 percent or above for several weeks in a row.
Though the outbreak had subsided by the end of May, the experts were not relieved. This was because at the same time neighbouring India was facing the worst attack ever of the pandemic with the delta or Indian type of the virus. It was pretty much expected that the outbreak will spread to Bangladesh. All that remained was to see when it would arrive and how horrible it would be. However, it did not take long. The attack started in June and took a dangerous turn in July-August. The country saw more than 10, 00 new cases a day for several weeks in a row, what even exceeded 15,000 at some stage. Day after day the number of deaths stood at over two hundred. At the same time, the detection rate was around 30 percent. The severity of the outbreak and the death march caused outcry across the country. The health care system of the country was on the verge of collapse.
Since the onset of the pandemic in March last year,this deadly bug struck the country in three phases. The first outbreak started in March last year when the first COVID-19 patient was detected in the country and lasted for almost the whole year. At this phase, the original form of the coronavirus is thought to have played a key role. The second and third outbreaks have already been discussed above. During April-May this year, the second outbreak came with a strange speed and intensity at a time when people started thinking that perhaps the pandemic is over. The third outbreak, which lasted from mid-June to mid-September this year was so severe in agility and intensity that if it had endured for a long time, the overall structure of the health care system and economy of the country might have collapsed totally.
By the grace of Allah, this last and most severe attack of the pandemic has finally come to an end in September. The timely intervention in the middle through nearly one month of country-wide lockdown might have played an important role here. The ongoing mass immunization program in the country also has undoubtedly contributed to this. According to media reports, Dr Firdausi Qadri, a 2021 Ramon Magsaysay Award-winning scientist, estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the country’s population has developed herd immunity against COVID-19, which played a role in controlling infection.
The question is if that was the final outbreak of the pandemic, or we may see more of them in future. And what should we do to prevent re-emergence of such an outbreak? What makes this question more important is the fact that after remaining closed for almost one year and a half, the government has finally taken a cautious attempt to reopen schools and colleges from September 12. The government has also signalled for reopening universities after September 27. However, the education minister has warned that educational institutions may be closed again if the infection rate soars. It may be mentioned here that in many countries of the world, including neighbouring India, the infection has picked up again after the opening of educational institutions or lifting of lockdowns / restrictions. Even, somewhere the restrictions had to be re-imposed.
It is important to understand the causes before deciding on remedies. The game of sunshine and rain that we see with COVID-19, I mean re-emergence of outbreaks after one subsides, broadly may have two major grounds — scientists believe. First, when an outbreak of the pandemic subsides, restrictions are lifted and educational institutions are reopened, people begin to show reluctance to follow health protocols. As they are set free on a sudden after a long shutdown, some people start behaving reckless paying no heed to anything. As a consequence, the people, who were confined at home and so protected from the bug, become exposed to it and start getting infected.
Second, the emergence of new variants of the virus through mutation. Though most of them did not cause any significant problems, some proved to be dangerous. The last two outbreaks of the pandemic hitting Bangladesh this year were due to such newly emerged variants. Although these variants initially emerged in some other regions of the world, they spread around the world in a very short time due to their high infectivity and transmissibility. Scientists believe that the more the virus spreads from person to person, the more likely it is that new variants will emerge through mutation. Therefore, in order to prevent fresh outbreaks, it is necessary to quickly bring the entire population under vaccination, so that the chances of spread of the virus could be halted. At the same time, it is important to continue to follow the health protocols, such as wearing masks and maintaining physical distance, without paying much attention to the statistics. Because, even if you have completed the dose of vaccine, there is no guarantee that you will not be infected with any new variant.
The schools and colleges have already opened. Universities are also going to open soon. There is great excitement and joy in the eyes of the students. The guardians and the general public are also breathing a sigh of relief. The question is: will this joy and excitement last? Will there not be a situation like closing down educational institutions again? What do we need to do? Covid-19 is nothing new any longer. Everyone knows more or lesswhat happens from what, or what are the safeguards. However, from the above discussion, it is clear that still there are risks. With a little carelessness, universities can become hot spots for the spread of infection. As a precaution, the government has strongly instructed to ensure 100 per cent vaccination of students, teachers, officers and staff before opening the universities. After opening, the main challenge will be to ensure the wearing of masks, maintaining social distance and avoiding public gatherings.
For this purpose, it may be necessary to conduct classes with a half or one-third of the students in the classroom. There may be a need to take classes in multiple shifts or apply online-offline (hybrid) method. There is no scope for continuing culture of the ‘public room’, sharing the bed or lying on floor that has been going on in the hostels for so long. The question is: how to sort out accommodations for the students used to live this way? If the administration takes the responsibility, a solution will come out. There should be a plan in advance. Food shops on and around campus, including dining halls, canteens, and cafeterias, can be a source of contagion due to uncontrolled crowds and unhealthy serving. Proper management of this area will not be easy without a precise and detailed action plan. With the opening of the campus after a long break, there will be a tendency among students to gather in hostels, shops, and hangouts. That, too, needs to be controlled.
In a country like ours, university level teachers and students are the most conscious and progressive part of the society. Traditionally, they have been the leaders of the nation in the arena of thought and consciousness at any critical juncture. Therefore, they are not at all unaware of the issues mentioned above. But, in spite of that, you may see that a significant part of this community is unnecessarily neglecting these issues. As if they want to say: does it really matter? Therefore, the university administration needs to take special measures to ensure hygiene on campus. The university always has a proctorial team. However, there is a need to consider whether it is sufficient in terms of manpower and the type of work. Unless university students voluntarily extend a helping hand, it may not be easy to enforce rules and regulations on them.
Therefore, formation of sufficient number of patrol teams comprising teachers and students for various departments, halls and, above all, for the entire campus, deserves serious consideration.
In the reality of this country, the university campuses are a lot like gunpowder. Suddenly even a very small incident may give rise to huge unrest here. It is not uncommon for some teachers and students to fall ill after the campus opens, despite all the precautionary measures. Some cases may even need hospitalization. Even a single accident here may lead to a fatal reaction. Therefore, it is important to have an arrangement within the university premises for immediate examination and necessary care to deal with any teacher or student presenting with COVID-19 symptoms. COVID-19 pandemic has forced policymakers across the world to place special emphasis on health care.
In this changed reality, initiatives can be taken to transform the existing medical centres in the country’s universities into kind of small hospitals with state-of-the-art facilities. These in turn will be able to provide healthcare to the university family as well as surrounding localities. In many countries of the world, university health centres provide such services. If it could be introduced in this country, the pressure on the conventional public and private health care centres will also be reduced. Besides, students studying health related subjects at the university level will also get the opportunity to receive hands-on education in various fields here.
The Writer is Professor and Chairman, Department of Pharmacy, Jahangirnagar University.