The decision of the Federal Government of Nigeria to reopen schools and the National Youth Service Corp. (NYSC) is facing heavy backlash due to the increasing cases of COVID-19. The second wave of the pandemic which came with more transmission force than the first has stirred concern that if the schools are allowed to open, the spread will be blown out of control and easily overwhelm Nigeria’s fragile healthcare system.
Schools are scheduled to reopen in Lagos State, the epicenter of the pandemic in Nigeria, and Ogun State on Jan. 18 while NYSC orientation camps will reopen on the Jan. 19 against the advice of medical professionals and recommendation made by the Economic Sustainability Committee led by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. The committee had in June recommended that the three-week orientation program for the National Youth Service Corps be suspended for two years, while the service itself could continue.
“The immediate focus in the education sector is to address the disruption caused by the pandemic and ensure social distancing measures at all levels of education.
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“In a similar context, consideration will be given to suspending the National Youth Service Corps orientation camp exercises for at least 24 months while allowing deployment to places of primary assignment. This will ensure that there is no backing in the national service placement pipeline,” the committee recommended.
In a blatant rejection of this recommendation, the federal government is moving ahead with the plan to reopen the camps which were forced to close in November after shortly being reopened, due to resurgence of coronavirus cases.
On Friday Jan. 15, Nigeria had 1,867 new cases; the highest since the pandemic began, putting the total number of cases recorded in Nigeria at 107,345, with 1,413 deaths. The increase spikes concern among health workers who fear that the decision to reopen the NYSC camps and schools will lead to further escalation of infections, a situation Nigeria’s healthcare system lacks the capacity to contain.
“The whole world knows that increased human interactions lead to an increase in COVID-19 infections. Even in the UK and USA, schools have been re-opened and shut at different times but the key thing is to reduce human interaction as much as possible.
“The truth is that re-opening of NYSC camps is avoidable. Corps members could have been given virtual orientation lectures and posted to their places of primary assignment. That was what the Vice-president’s committee recommended. There is no way these camps will not record infections,” a Nigerian health worker said.
Government’s attempt to reopen schools earlier has resulted in infections. There was a report of a secondary school where many students and staff tested positive for the virus in november, which this begs the question; why is the federal government keen on reopening both the schools and NYSC orientation camps.
Punch reported a source in the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development saying that the government succumbed to pressure due to economic considerations. The source said that some persons have been awarded NYSC contracts which need the camps to reopen for them to be executed; otherwise there will be huge losses.
“About 90 percent of the budget of the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development goes to the NYSC. You can check it. There is no way the government will suspend the orientation programme for two years. The orientation camp is a key component of the NYSC contracts.
“It was just like when the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs insisted on continuing with the school feeding programme even when schools were shut during lockdown,” the source said.
Apparently not a decision he can change, the Director General of Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, responding to the development, said the government could not stop all activities in attempt to quell the pandemic. He said the authorities can only find a way to mitigate the risks as much as possible, adding that measures have been put in place to ensure safety in the NYSC camps.
The director of the NYSC, Brig Gen. Shuaibu Ibrahim, said the orientation camps will continue with the safety protocols established in November which ensures social distancing.
The NYSC Camp Safe Reopening Project Lead, Dr Oyeladun Okunromade disclosed extra measures being taken to ensure safety in the camps. She said there will be no religious gatherings in the camps and corps members will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival at the orientation camps, and those who test positive will be isolated at approved NCDC health facilities. She explained that a maximum of 200 corps members would resume daily.
Despite these promised safety measures, medical professionals who spoke with Punch said the idea of reopening schools and the youth service orientation camps now will only breed disaster.
“Even the schools they want to open, I am so scared. Just about two or three days ago, we heard about LASUCOM hostel where three students tested positive, they have to close down the medical school, yet we are talking about NYSC camps that would have thousands of young people.
“Why is the government doing this? Indeed, by now, what we should be talking about is total lockdown,” Ogun State Chairman of Nigeria Medical Association, Dr. Oladipo Ogunlaja told Punch.
The federal government had on Friday ruled out the possibility of another lockdown, given the economic considerations of the country. However, the recent upsurge in COVID-19 cases is worrisome and equally poses a danger that bears more economic consequence.
With the government’s plan for vaccines acquisition yet to materialize, federal government’s plan to move on with the decision to reopen NYSC camps and schools, even when affluent countries with access to vaccines are keeping schools closed has been condemned.