File picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)
File picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Covid-19 education conundrum: Expert explains why children SHOULD go back to school

By Sihle Mlambo Time of article published May 11, 2020

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Johannesburg - Professor Shabir Madhi, one of the medical experts on Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s advisory committee, has called on pupils to be sent back to school sooner rather than later. 

Madhi, a vaccinologist and an infectious disease specialist, believes that the Covid-19 lockdown that was instituted by South Africa since late March has done the best it could. He said children should be sent back to school, but stressed that schools should take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus for children at school. 

He said however, that it was inevitable that children would infect one another as the virus would be with us in the country for at least the next two years until a vaccine was developed. 

He was also critical, however, that the lockdown may have been instituted too early, with South Africa lacking the requisite testing capacity at the time. He said in the first two weeks of the lockdown, the country began to test fewer people than it did before instituting the lockdown, leading to fewer confirmed cases during the period in question. 

In terms of children going back to school, Madhi said it was a no-brainer, as the mortality rate among children under the age of 18, was extremely low. 

Madhi was speaking at a Daily Maverick Webinar on Sunday night. He said \children rarely developed severe illnesses from Covid-19. 

In Italy, where there were in excess of 30 000 Covid-19 deaths, none of the deceased were children, he said.

But in the United States, he said three children had died, and in all three cases, the children had underlying medical conditions. The US death toll sits at over 80 000. 

Madhi cited a Dutch study and said there was no evidence which showed children were infecting adults. 

“Adults are more likely to be infecting adults, and adults of the same age group are more likely to (infect each other) and because obviously they are in the same social circles. 

“Adults are the ones infecting children, there is hardly any documentation of children being the ones infecting adults in the Netherlands,” he said. 

The professor said it was time to send children back to school as there was enough evidence which showed that children were not the vectors for Covid-19.

“We are not protecting children by not sending them back to school,” he stressed.

Madhi said there was no point in keeping 15 million children at home as the Covid-19 would not go away quickly, it would be around for at least the next two years and there would be three to four waves of the virus. 

“This virus is not going to go away,” he said. “There will be three to four waves before we have a vaccine, so we need to put a plan in place for the next two years,” he said.

Madhi also said that it must 'sink in' to South Africans that over 60% of people in the country would be infected with the virus at some point, but that was not a doomsday scenario, he explained. 

"We are not an island nation like New Zealand where we can prevent that from happening. 

Using a sample of 1000 adults, he said 400 of those would be infected.

From those infected 70% of those people would get the virus and be asymptomatic, 25% would have a mild illness, 5% (roughly 25 people) would require hospitalization and 3-4 people would die. 

He said of those that would die, 90% of them would be people over the age of 65 with comorbidities.

Among children, he said 2 children per 1000 children under the age of 13, could end up in hospital, and none would die. 

“There needs to be a much more rapid phasing in of the opening schools, necessaery precautions must be taken. Children are going to infect each other, there's no avoiding it, that is the nature of a respiratory virus, you can't avoid it,” he said. 

He said teachers still needed to ensure pupils adhered to washing of hands, wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Pupils also needed to be assessed on their level of knowledge about how to reduce the rate of infection.

* For the latest on the Covid-19 outbreak, visit IOL's special #Coronavirus page.

** If you think you have been exposed to the Covid-19 virus, please call the 24-hour hotline on 0800 029 999 or visit sacoronavirus.co.za 

IOL

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