If it’s safe enough to remove restrictions on religious gatherings, with possibilities of congregations of up to 500, there’s enough reason to canvass for the reopening of schools, writes Demola Ojo
With the month of June came optimism, following indications that through proper management, the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
In Nigeria, the presidential task force on COVID-19 progressed to the second phase of easing restrictions on various socio-economic activities.
A well-received guideline by the PTF chairman, Boss Mustapha, was the directive that the nationwide curfew, which before June 2nd was from 8pm to 6am, will now be between 10pm and 4am.
The PTF notably relaxed the restrictions on religious gatherings in accordance with safety guidelines, while the ban on interstate movement remained, with exemptions for goods and essential travel.
The full opening of the financial sector was also welcome, with banks now free to operate normal working hours five days a week. Hotels may also reopen but restaurants outside of hotels must remain closed for eat-in, with only take-outs allowed. Bars, gyms, cinemas, nightclubs and parks are closed until further evaluation.
The aviation sector has been directed to start developing protocols for domestic flights to resume from June 21 but schools are to remain closed, as protocols have not yet been concluded for them to resume.
National coordinator for the PTF, Sani Aliyu reiterated, “The mass gathering of more than 20 people, outside of workplaces or places of worship remains prohibited.”
He further stated that reopening of churches and mosques is not unqualified, but with conditions subject to agreed protocols reached between State governments and religious leaders. These include the mandatory use of masks, sanitizing of hands, limited opening hours and physical distancing.
However, based on the responses on Twitter, more than a few thought it odd that schools remained closed, without indications of protocols being developed, while religious gatherings are allowed.
According to the user @hawt_red “Religious houses (are) being prioritised over businesses that actually contribute to the economy.”
Another user, @Dahygu_Breez, opined; “The government should work on these policies for tax payers rather than this backward focus on satiating powerful lobby interests.”
The argument supporting the opening of religious organisations include the limited duration respective congregations are in close proximity, the frequency of services (Sundays and Fridays) and that safety protocols are probably better observed at places of worship. Adults are more responsible, and safety protocols can be better observed. There is also the argument that going to church or mosque is optional, and those who are not comfortable with it should stay at home.
To this suggestion, @kazhamza replied: “We can stay in our houses but people who go can still give it to us as offices are now open. Opening potential super spreader places like houses of worship is illogical. It takes just one service for many to get infected.”
Some of the states worst hit by the pandemic baulked at the new federal government guidelines.
The Lagos State government went in-depth into reasons why it wouldn’t be in its best interests to allow the return of religious gatherings.
Some religious leaders were quoted to have said they couldn’t guarantee gatherings of less than 20 and supported a continuation of the ban on congregations.
Lagos State commissioner for home affairs, Prince Anofiu Elegushi, said: “Even before the pronouncement by the federal government, we have been having meetings with the religious leaders. We also had one with the leaders of the two faiths and I want to tell you categorically that at that meeting, the possibility of reopening religious houses was ruled out totally.
“They claimed that they cannot take such responsibility of ensuring that only 20 or 50 people are praying behind them. Like an Imam said he doesn’t know what is going on behind him whenever he is leading a prayer. He said if more than 20 or 50 people are staying at his back, he is not going to take responsibility for their presence.
“So, at the meeting, we ruled out in totality the issue of reopening the religious houses until we have a clear coast for us to do so.”
A few days after, however, the state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, communicated plans for religious gatherings to commence in about two weeks. “There will now be restricted openings of religious houses based on compliance that we have seen and reviewed with the safety commission.
“From 14 days time, precisely on the 19th of June for our Muslim worshippers and from the 21st of June for our Christian worshippers, we will be allowing all of our religious bodies to open at a maximum of 40% of their capacity and we’ll be working with them as being expected by the Lagos State Safety Commission.
“But we know that these places of worship have different sizes but even if your 40% capacity is really so large, you cannot have beyond 500 worshippers at once, and keeping that maximum 40% capacity is really important.
“We will be encouraging people to have more than one service and ensure that they keep their premises clean, disinfect before another round of worship can take place.”
Follow the Science
By the time Lagos allows up to 500 to congregate, airports in five locations across the country – Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Owerri and Port Harcourt – will start receiving commuters. Hotels and banks will practically be in full swing.
The belief among a large number of the youth (judging by twitter) is that without powerful lobby groups like say banks or religious organisations, the fate (and future) of Nigerian students is not of utmost priority to decision makers.
Students, majority of whom are below the age of 24, are the least affected by the coronavirus globally. School and university closings globally were aimed chiefly at protecting teachers, parents and the population as a whole, not students.
Opposing school reopenings in the name of protecting the kids doesn’t make a lot of statistical sense.
While they probably form the bulk of asymptomatic carriers, logic based on science suggests they should be the group free to move and build some form of herd immunity, while the vulnerable, old and sick are isolated for their protection.
There is little evidence to suggest that reopening schools increases the rate of infection of the coronavirus. The reopening of schools in 22 European countries has not led to any significant increase in coronavirus infections among children, parents or staff, a videoconference meeting of education ministers from around the EU last week revealed.
Hopefully, focus will soon shift to developing protocols for Nigerian students to resume instruction under hygienic conditions.