MENA countries brace for COVID-19 spike as kids head back to school

Millions of students are currently streaming back to schools after summer vacation.

Tuesday 15/09/2020
Students wear masks as they wait in line on their first day back at school, in Damascus, Syria, September 13. (SANA/AP)
Students wear masks as they wait in line on their first day back at school, in Damascus, Syria, September 13. (SANA/AP)

 TUNIS – Parents and health workers in countries of the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) are increasingly concerned about the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic as the academic year kicks off across the region.

Millions of students are currently streaming back to schools after summer vacation. However, the back-to-school season this year is not only marked by financial stress for many parents but also growing alarm about the lack of health and safety measures required to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Tunisia, the rapid increase of coronavirus cases is raising fears that the epidemiological situation will spiral out of control, especially with the decline in hospital capacity and the absence of a clear government strategy.

The total number of people infected with the coronavirus in the country passed 7,300, health ministry figures showed late Monday.

Coronavirus cases are still on the rise in the country, said health ministry spokeswoman Nissaf Ben Alaya earlier in the day.

She noted a change in the nature of infections from imported COVID-19 cases to horizontal and local cases that cannot be easily counted.

“Every day, about 300-400 new cases and about 3-4 deaths are recorded. As for the number of patients residing in hospitals, it reached 100, including 9 patients residing in resuscitation departments under artificial respiration,” Ben Alaya said.

Speaking to local radio, the health official described the epidemiological situation as “critical,” noting that Tunisia is witnessing a “third stage of the virus spread” that is usually characterised by rapid spread and a surge in locally transmitted cases.

Ben Alaya also warned of the virus spreading within the workplace, calling for the application of preventive measures such as mask-wearing, hand-washing and adherence to social distancing guidelines.

“Preventive measures must be applied strictly. The epidemiological situation in Tunisia is critical and could further deteriorate,” she said. “For this reason, there is (a) need to adhere to preventive measures, especially with the beginning of the academic year.”

Recent statements from health officials and doctors, coupled with the news of rising cases, has raised concerns among Tunisians, with many parents afraid to send their children back to school.

A young Tunisian student gives the thumbs up sign outside a primary school on September 15, in the Ariana region near Tunis. (AFP)
A young Tunisian student gives the thumbs up sign outside a primary school on September 15, in the Ariana region near Tunis. (AFP)

Fears were compounded after four teachers caught the virus in Manzil Al Nour in the coastal governorate of Monastir.

The education ministry previously set out plans for students to gradually return to schools to relieve pressure on establishments and allow them to better implement health protocol.

However, doubts remain about their ability to fully comply with the health standards given the poor condition of many schools in impoverished areas of the country.

Numerous Tunisian doctors called Monday on decision-makers to reimpose full lockdown measures, saying in a statement, “We are ringing the alarm bell about the confirmed and imminent danger of exhausting our hospitals’ capacity. We ask government’s officials to take [a number of] measures immediately, which are the only ones that, in our opinion, can stop the spread of the pandemic and allow us to better treat the new cases.”

On Tuesday, secretary-general of Tunisia’s secondary School Teachers’ Union Lassaad Yacoubi spoke to local media about the absence of preventive measures at a number of schools.

“Despite our agreement with the ministry about more than 90 percent of the required measures, we noticed the absence of sterilisation and the non-use of masks,” Yacoubi said.

He also accused the government of misleading the public by providing wrong figures that do not reflect the real number of impoverished families in Tunisia, noting that only 50,000 masks are now available for 2 million students.

A number of schools in the country, he said, do not have drinking water or bathrooms that meet health requirements.

In Syria, health concerns are even more severe, as more than 3 million students started school in government-held areas Sunday.

Syria, which registered a population of 23 million before its conflict began in March 2011, has 3,506 confirmed coronavirus cases and 152 deaths in government-held areas.

However, the actual caseload  is believed to be much higher, as the number of tests conducted is low and many people in rural areas are unaware they are carrying the virus.

Coronavirus tests at private clinics cost around $60, far too expensive for most Syrians whose average salary is less than $100 a month. The government conducts about 300 free tests each day for people showing symptoms.

Among the precautionary measures taken by the country’s education ministry are sanitation of schools’ classrooms, walls, floors, stairs and bathrooms, state news agency SANA said. Students’ temperatures will be checked as well.

Syrian Education Minister Darem Tabbah said school directors have been tasked with educating students on how to fight the spread of the coronavirus, and that every student will be required to wear a mask, and that seats in classrooms will be set at a safe distance apart.

SANA reported 3,735,521 students from different educational levels in all provinces are attending 13,280 schools.

Syrian government forces now control most of the country with the help of Russia and Iran, the two main backers of President Bashar Assad. The conflict that began more than nine years ago has killed about 400,000, wounded more than a million and displaced half of Syria’s population. More than 5 million have become refugees, mostly in neighbouring countries.

According to the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, Syria’s crisis was a major blow to education, with more than 7,000 schools damaged or destroyed and about 2 million children out of school.

Many students in areas outside government control, mostly in the north-western province of Idlib, have missed attending school amid sporadic violence. Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the country, is home to more than 3 million people, many of them internally displaced from other parts of Syria.

Unlike other countries in the Middle East, Israel decided Sunday to head into a second coronavirus lockdown following a sharp escalation in the number of new infections in recent weeks.

The lockdown, which requires schools, stores, malls and hotels to close and reinstates restrictions on people’s movements for at least three weeks starting Friday, marks an attempt to halt the trajectory that saw more than 4,000 new cases in a single day last week in a country of some 9 million.

Data released by the Israeli health ministry on Sunday showed that since the start of the crisis, 153,759 people in Israel have caught the virus. 114,635 have recovered, while 1,108 have died. There are 38,008 active cases.

Although the number of critical cases appears low, medical centres in Israel have said they are approaching full capacity and there is fear that the number of infections will increase dramatically as the country heads into winter and begins a month of Jewish holy festivals starting Friday.

A Tunisian mother adjusts the face mask of her daughter as students arrive at primary school on September 15, in the Ariana region near Tunis. (AFP)
A Tunisian mother adjusts the face mask of her daughter as students arrive at primary school on September 15, in the Ariana region near Tunis. (AFP)

Morocco has so far resisted a full lockdown, but the government imposed a lockdown on Casablanca and shut its schools last week, the day pupils were due to return to classes.

The new measures, which include restrictions on movement and a night-time curfew, would be in place for two weeks in the commercial capital, the authorities said in a statement issued late Sunday.

“We risk being overwhelmed by the virus,” said Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb.

“Therefore, drastic measures are required, otherwise the situation may get out of control in the coming days,” the official MAP news agency quoted the minister as saying.

Morocco has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. It recorded 2,234 new infections on Sunday, a record for a single day, with 42% of them in Casablanca, home to 3.3 million people. Since detecting its first case in early March, Morocco has recorded 86,686 COVID-19 infections, including 1,578 deaths.

The decision to reopen schools earlier raised concerns in the country, with epidemiologists warning of the health risks that students returning to school could be exposed to and the health sector’s capacity to respond to a further spike in cases.

Caution prevailed in neighbouring Algeria, with Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad saying on Sunday that the date for the start of the 2020-2021 school year would depend on the country’s health situation, the official APS news agency reported.

Djerad told media that the scientific committee monitoring the spread of COVID-19 will suggest the date to open schools to the government.

Algeria on Sunday reported 247 new COVID-19 cases and seven new fatalities, bringing the total number of infections to 48,254 and the death toll to 1,612, the health ministry said in a statement.

In the United Arab Emirates, hundreds of thousands of pupils were back in classrooms in early September. However, some schools across the countries were compelled to resume distance learning as a precaution after some staff were suspected to have caught the virus.

The schools, which are in different emirates, again closed classrooms to protect staff and pupils, the education ministry and the National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority said September 1.

“As a precaution, education, emergency and crisis authorities announce the transfer of a group of schools to the distance-learning system,” the authority said on Twitter.

It said the suspected cases were identified during COVID-19 screenings for teachers and administrative staff prior to the reopening of schools this week.

“This precautionary measure will remain in place until the results of the laboratory tests appear,” the authority said.

School administrations will communicate directly with parents to update them on any changes, state news agency WAM reported.