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Weathering through the COVID storm

Weathering through the COVID storm

The rampage of the notorious COVID-19 virus has now reached 181 countries around the world. The number of people infected has surpassed one million as of Thursday, April 2, 2020, claiming the lives of 55,000 people world-wide. The United States of America leads in the number of total confirmed cases at 245,000 as of Friday, April 3, 2020, followed by Spain and Italy registering almost half of that figure. At the fourth and fifth place, there are countries like Germany and China with 85,000 and 82,000 confirmed cases followed by France and Iran with 59,000 and 53,000 cases, respectively.

Italy is undeniably the worst COVID-19 case so far with death toll nearly 14,000 and still having actives cases which is more than the total confirmed case in China which is the origin of the Novel Coronavirus and since then managed to control the spread and the infection of this deadly virus. Spain is another southern European country where COVID-19 is causing a lot of damage. Until Friday, Spain has lost close to 11,000 people to this new pathogen with 77,000 active cases still facing uncertain future.

From this leading pack, Germany is one country that is able to tame down the death toll to a reasonable 1,200. On the other hand, places like France, where confirmed cases of the Coronavirus is almost one fourth of the figure in the US, the sudden rise of death toll to 5, 400 which is 600 deaths shy of the death figures in the US, looks to be experiencing a sharp increase in the loss of lives, where it has seen more than 1000 death over one 24-hour cycle.

Given recent figures, another country—England— has joined the leading pack with death toll far more disproportionate to its confirmed case of 38,000— reaching 36oo even greater than that of China. Furthermore, countries like Switzerland, next on the chart in terms of confirmed cases with 19,000 infected, so far, has suffered a death toll of only 573; more perplexingly, Turkey with confirmed case 18,000 has lost only 356 patients far outstripped by the likes of Netherlands and Belgium in death toll having confirmed case of 16,000 and 15,000 yet losing 1,100 and 1,500 people to the virus.  

Still a lot remains to be known about this pandemic. While some scientists attest to the larger proportion of old-age population in some of countries COVID-19 has caused severe damages, other are of the opinion that the level of preparedness and adherence to the preventive measures is the critical factor to minimize the death toll caused by this novel virus. In fact, lax in adherence to the preventive measures suggested by public health professionals is said to be a major factor influencing the way the epidemic unfolds in a certain country.

On the basis of these observations, a number of countries in the world today seem to have chosen a total lockdown to stop the spread of this deadly virus in their territories. This lockdown is not only restricted to closing down borders and blocking the movement of the general public, but implementing wide ranging lockdown measures including social distancing and self-isolation.

In Ethiopia, however, things are yet far from total lockdown. Since the announcement of the first confirmed case on March 13, 2020, Ethiopia has seen its COVID-19 cases grow to a total of 35. With three already recovered and two foreigners going back to their countries, currently the nation has 30 active coronavirus cases.

Addis Ababa, a hotspot for the spread of the virus in Ethiopia is still not under total lockdown and people can still go out; business is still moving albeit at a slower pace. Nevertheless, places where a large gathering of people is required remained closed all through the past two weeks. This means closure of many schools and education centers, including but not limited to colleges and universities. This has undeniable impact on the lives of the students and their parents.

Globally, the education sector has been disrupted for months now, and now most of them have moved on to their plan B to deliver the needed education to students—online or remote learning. While this is not something that is disruptive to tertiary level students on the account of already blending education curriculums, it is quite new and testing system to elementary and junior high students.

According to the experts, online learning is something that is very different to conventional, even in its pedagogical approach. As the crisis hits, China was the first to try this online or remote learning system on the account of the shutdown. And, they had their fair share of difficulties to say the least.

Application tools like google classroom and Zoom have started to rise in prominence following the shutdown. Uniquely suited for this purpose, Zoom for instance has facilities where students can do virtual classes. This is not the same for Ethiopia; the sever lack of infrastructure in Addis could make everything very difficult. Indeed it has.

Nevertheless, some private schools in Addis Ababa were the first to react to the first two weeks long school closures announced by the COVID-19 task team. Mihiret Mogess, mother of three and a journalist working for the Amharic Reporter, is of the opinion that some of the private schools in Addis Ababa are really trying to reach their students at home where they remain in partial lockdown with their parents. Speaking to the reporter as a mother, Mihiret says that children are confronted with a staggering level of school work even under this partial lockdown.

“There is voluminous educational material delivered on weekly basis through a dedicated telegram channel or via email. There are adequate notes and other educational materials, on top of periodic tests, quizzes and self-examination questions at the students’ disposals,” she explained. Also the schools maintain an open channel of communication with parents, according to Mihiret, adding that “the initial circular sent out to parents on how to manage the two-weeks long home-schooling was really helpful”.

Nevertheless, there are other parents who feel the volume of work that some of these schools demand during this time and the level of responsibility befalling the parents is massive. “I did not know overseeing the schooling of my children was such a difficult task,” comments one father who spoke to The Reporter anonymously.

“If the schools’ guidelines are followed strictly, the students would conduct themselves just like they are in class, since they have to finish their school work, and to do that they have to maintain regular school hours both in the morning and in the afternoon,” Mihiret confirms.

Nevertheless, the public schooling system in Ethiopia has been and still is a totally different story. Experts argue that Ethiopia’s public schooling system is an underfunded, overcapacity system with less chance of delivering quality education in par with some of the private/community schools in the city. Based on that, most expect to see idle public school students in COVID-affected Addis Ababa.

Well, at least one person disagrees. Abebe Chernet, Public Relation and Communication head with the Addis Ababa Education Bureau, is adamant that the city administration is concerned about the students in the public school system and have made some moves to make this partial lockdown a learning opportunity for the children.

With slowly extending lockdown, Abebe now says that students are receiving the necessary reading materials to continue with their education at home under the supervision of their parents. “What we have done is focus on finding way to get the educational materials that we have at our disposal to students without having to gather them, since it defeats the whole purpose,” he said to The Reporter

This is where we saw the official website, telegram and Youtube channels of our Bureau come in handy, he explains, adding that now almost all reading textbooks are converted to softcopies and made available for free on all the three platforms. “This is on top of some motivational and encouragement contents that students needs to pursue their education during this difficult time”.

On the other hand, we have a dedicated Radio programs dealing with regular education for schools ranging from 1-8. “This is available on FM station 94.7 in the city and our students can tune into their program and get some level of the classroom experience which they are missing,” he explains. These radio programs are streamed every day until 5:55 with at least two reruns of each programs to ensure students catch them at their convenience, according to Abebe. 

The story is similar for high school students, Abebe maintains, adding that the dedicated plasma TV education program, which by the way is also available on satellite dishes used in Addis Ababa, is strictly deliver the curriculum to students.

On the other hand, COVID-19 scare has not only interrupted the formal education system but vital social safety net mechanism like the school feeding program. Anchinesh Tesfaye is Head of the Agency that runs the school feeding program. A critical urban safety net scheme, the school feeding program, responsible for providing regular two-meals a day for students in city’s public school system, is the other thing that is severely disrupted by the COVID-19 partial shutdown.

According to Anchinesh, the City is now prepared to reach down to these children whose food sustainability is affect by the disruption; and it is going to be city-wide food aid program setting out to address the urban poor whose livelihoods are affect by COVID-19 partial shutdown. “So far, we have been stockpiling our food banks comprising of basic food items and grains," she explains, and in the coming weeks we are going to start to reach every needy household in our city with this basic food items.

According to her, the logistics of this program is as difficult as mobilizing the resources needed. Currently, an elaborate network of volunteers is preparing to carry the burden of food distribution in the city which will be segmented into blocks for distribution. “Here too we have to think of not defeating the purpose by having long queues and gathering to access the food aid; we rather prefer to partition the city into block; and to go to the city residents block-by-block.    

So far, we have collected more 150 million in cash and in kind for this program mainly from donations, she explained in detail. “Although we are yet to determine how far our stockpiles could get us, at the planning level we are thinks of a shutdown time of three months, as a worst case scenario, and we are preparing for it,” Anchinesh contends.