Religion prioritised ahead of education

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By Paidamoyo Muzulu

EDUCATION is key to development. This has been demonstrated through Unicef’s activities and the fight for literacy and skills training. However, Zimbabwe this week became an exception to that norm.

Zimbabwe has been on lockdown level 4 since June because of the spike in COVID-19 cases. Schools, churches were banned under those lockdown regulations.

However, in a rare move on Wednesday, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Cabinet lifted the ban on sit-in church services for fully vaccinated congregants as schools remain closed.

A Cabinet statement released reads: “Cabinet wishes to inform the public that churches can now allow sit-in congregants under the following conditions: Only congregants who have received two doses of the vaccine are allowed to attend; all ministry of Health and Child Care and WHO protocols are adhered to, and all those found in breach will be arrested, including the leaders of  the churches.”

The die has been cast, religion has won and scored higher than education. This is despite the fact that in the 2020 academic year, six months of learning were lost to COVID-19-induced lockdowns.

This year, three months have been lost. In practical terms, this year’s Ordinary and Advanced Level pupils have lost a year of learning.

What is further worrisome is the fact that the ban on schools, particularly primary and secondary education is not based on any research of COVID-19 effects on those below 18 years.

It is a fact that across Africa, all available vaccination against the pandemic are not administered to children.

In other words, whether schools open or remain closed those under 18 cannot be vaccinated.

In South Africa, they are trying to be informed by science on their decisions.

The Daily Maverick this week wrote: “Western Cape residents aged between 50 and 59 are being urged to get their COVID-19 vaccine since this group has the most hospital admissions and deaths.

“According to provincial data, 68% of admissions and 87% of deaths recorded during the third wave are among the over 50s.

“Admissions and cases are starting to stabilise, but the province is still in its peak of third-wave infections and health authorities say those eligible to get vaccinated need to do so urgently.”

In Zimbabwe, these statistics are not available. We are not aware which demographic group has borne the brunt of the pandemic, neither are we categorising who should access the vaccine first based on scientific vulnerability assessment.

Stellenbosch University professor Michael le Cordeur wrote some treatise on time lost in schools based on research in South Africa.

He wrote: “I have previously written that learners must return to school because they are experiencing learning losses when they are away from school, which in the long run will disadvantage them for further education.

“This argument is backed up by the increasing dropout rate. Before the pandemic, this number was already alarmingly high.

“Over the past 16 months, this figure has increased from 250 000 to more than 750 000, mostly in areas where joblessness and poverty play a big role.”

In Zimbabwe, we have not had figures of dropouts in the past 15 months after the pandemic started. We only know the pass rate at both Grade 7 and O-Level were below average compared to other results in the past decade.

Through a rural teachers’ union, Artuz, we now know that some 30% of O-Level pupils failed to register for the November examinations after they failed to raise the requisite fees.

The long-term effect of the dropouts and the half-baked pupils produced by the education system is yet to be fully felt, but it would be inordinate.

As an alternative, le Cordeur suggested: “Probably a differentiated strategy should be followed. Primary schools must teach learners to read and write.

“Thus, it would have been a better option if everyone in the foundation phase were sent back first, while the rest still rotate. There is also an argument to be made that matrix must return full time.”

In Zimbabwe’s circumstances that means young learners and all examination classes must be prioritised.

The government should bring out desegregated data on the number of infections, deaths and recoveries among people below 18 years, who normally are found in primary and secondary schools.

It is this data that should inform if the continued ban on education is valid or not.

We cannot as a country continue to muddle through in our approach to COVID-19.

Achieving herd immunity at the rate at which people are being vaccinated may take us to end of 2022 or first quarter of 2023. So, can anyone convincingly argue that schools should remain closed till then?

It is no secret that the poor have suffered more than the rich from the pandemic.

It is also an established fact through the Auditor-General’s report that safety nets for the vulnerable have been abused.

The Auditor-General in her report on schools said children from rural and high-density suburbs were performing badly in national examinations than their counterparts from independent trustee schools and private colleges. In other words, the poor continue to carry the can. It, therefore, follows that the reopening of churches could be a political move with one eye on the next election due in less than 24 months.

It could also be argued, education has been sacrificed because it has no immediate political returns to the incumbent. Let us find a rational way to reopen schools and save the majority poor from continuously being trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty.

It is time for leadership to show they rule for the majority and not the few elite.