UJ’s Prof Benjamin Smart says parents shouldn’t fear Covid-19

Prof Benjamin Smart, an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Director of The Future of Health and Medicine project at the Institute for the Future of Knowledge (IFK), recently penned an opinion article published on IOL News, 24 May 2020.

On June 1, some of South Africa’s brightest young stars will head back to school after a long, unplanned, and very unwelcome break.The Grade 12s will be desperate to learn as much as they can to properly prepare for their final matric exams, as many aim to become the first in their families to head to varsity and, ultimately, to make strong contributions to a transformed South African economy.That the government’s NCCC (National Covid-19 Command Council) has decided to get classrooms active again should come as a huge relief to pupils and parents alike – but to many, it has not.According to former DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s Twitter poll, 76% of voters are against schools reopening on June 1.

News channel eNCA conducted a similar poll. Only 23% were in favour of sending their children back to school, with the rest unsure (25%) or a hard “no, worried about safety”.

This is a reflection of two things: first, the admirable and natural desire to protect one’s family. Second, the media and government’s failure to adequately explain the exceptionally low risk Covid-19 poses to children, and the necessity of getting the education ball rolling as soon as possible.

On May 18, the government reported 286 coronavirus deaths. Only one of these occurred in someone under the age of 30, and there were no deaths at all under 20. This very low fatality rate in the youth is a global phenomenon: as of May 13, in New York, US, of 15230 deaths, only nine were under 18, and of these nine it is highly likely (although I don’t have the facts) that most if not all of them had pre-existing conditions.

Simply put, Covid-19 is not deadly for children unless they have a serious underlying condition.

One elderly citizen asked Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga whether she could guarantee that her grandchild won’t bring the virus into the household. Similarly, some of the teaching unions, such as the SA Democratic Teachers Union, want guarantees for the safety of their teachers. Of course, the minister could not provide such guarantees, but nor should she be expected to. She cannot guarantee teachers won’t get influenza or tuberculosis, either.

Munro and Faust show in The British Medical Journal that children are not super spreaders of the disease, citing a number of studies in which infected children have been exposed to hundreds of others and not infected anyone. At a school in New South Wales, Australia, none of 735 children were infected by nine child and nine adult cases.

South Africans must get used to Covid-19 being around. Until an effective vaccine is rolled out, which could be years, or until there is herd immunity, South Africans will continue to catch Covid-19. We quite clearly cannot keep schools closed for two years. The effects both on education, and on the economy, would be vast and devastating.

In sending our grade 12s and 7s back to school, the government is acting both in accordance with a good scientific evidence-base, and in the best interests of South Africans.

Many parents won’t see their children back at school for months as it is (foundation phase learners are only set to return in August), and any further delay could have long-lasting effects on their education. As easy as it is to do, parents should not panic.

If you weren’t keeping your child back for fear of TB before lockdown, you shouldn’t now fear Covid-19.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg

prof benjamin smart
​Prof Benjamin Smart
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