All exams put off over virus fears

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-Total reported COVID-19 cases cross 117,000
-Govt re-affirms having holistic strategy in place
-Mirza says WHO looking at situation only from health lens
-Rules out intermittent lockdown plan

By Ajmal Khan Yousafzai

ISLAMABAD: The National Coordination Committee (NCC) has directed postponing all scheduled and unscheduled examinations across the country in view of a steep rise in coronavirus cases, media reported on Wednesday.
The National Coordination Committee (NCC) took the decision to maintain closure of all educational institutions including schools, colleges, universities and seminaries due to increasing number of coronavirus cases. The committee directed concerned authorities to immediately halt the organisation of conducting examinations.
Following the NCC’s decision, the federal education secretary issued directives to all provinces including Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) to implementing the orders.
According to the education secretary, it was not an appropriate time to organise examination as the students could contract the virus. The secretary directed the provincial authorities to ensure implementation of the decision.
It is pertinent to mention here that some educational institutions and seminaries had requested the education ministry to seek permission for organising examinations in June and July months.
Earlier in May, all medical universities in Punjab had decided not to promote MBBS and BDS students across the province without examinations. The decision was taken in a meeting of all Punjab medical universities vice-chancellors (VCs), held in Lahore. It was also agreed to form a uniform policy regarding conducting medical examinations and online classes in the wake coronavirus pandemic. Professor Javed Akram on the occasion said they cannot promote medical students with taking examinations as the decision will affect medical education.
He said that no change has been made in the semester schedule and academic sessions of all medical universities will end at the scheduled time. The National Coordination Committee (NCC) on Wednesday directed provincial governments to postpone and reschedule examinations across the country, as a protest raged outside the Karachi Press Club demanding the reopening of educational institutes. The education secretary penned down a letter to the four provinces, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Kashmir, underscoring that this is not a suitable time to conduct examinations as the country struggles to stem the spread of coronavirus. “Some educational institutions and madressahs had previously requested to conduct exams in the months of June and July. However, keeping in view the pandemic , provincial governments should ensure that there are no examinations conducted in their respective regions,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fazlur Rehman, in a press conference, demanded that educational institutes and madressahs be allowed to reopen. We should understand that the education sector is facing a huge loss for which the government has not planned anything, he said. Speaking of madressah students, he warned that if they are not occupied in classroom learning, they will take up activities not approved of by the state. In Karachi, the Private Schools Action Committee protested outside the press club, demanding the government allow educational institutes to reopen by June 15. The protesters said that they will ensure “strict measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus” at schools. The committee members warned that there will be nationwide protests if educational institutes are not allowed to resume operations.
Slamming the Sindh government for not granting permission in this regard, the association said that the heads of private schools are generating expenses for rents, electricity and other taxes from their own pockets for over four months now. Last week, the Sindh High Court (SHC) asked a provincial law officer and a counsel for private schools to reach an agreement on the payment criteria for 20% concession in tuition fees to the students for April and May, reported media. The remarks were made during a hearing of petitions of private schools and non-government organisations, which had respectively challenged and supported the Sindh COVID-19 Emergency Relief Ordinance that bound the educational institutions to not charge more than 80% of the total monthly fees.
Earlier this month, a meeting of the Sindh education department’s steering committee under provincial education minister Saeed Ghani had decided that teaching would not be allowed in any public or private educational institute across the province. However, private educational institutes are permitted to start online education. All of these schools must fully comply with SOPs, Ghani said. The education minister said there was no final decision as yet on the reopening of schools in the province as the coronavirus cases continue to rise all over Pakistan.
According to media, Ghani said the schools would be the “last places to be reopened in the province”. Parents would not send children to schools in the current situation, he had added.
Special Assistant to PM on Health Dr Zafar Mirza said on Wednesday that the government is making decisions which are in the best interest of its people in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus, according to a Radio Pakistan report.
The SAPM, in a reference to the World Health Organisation’s letter, said that the government is following a ‘holistic strategy’ to fight the virus. Mirza said that the government has made tough choices to ensure there is a balance between saving lives and sustaining livelihoods.
He said that the country has eased the lockdown restrictions, although it has enforced SOPs for public places, transportation, and industries.
Mirza said that the country has a ‘robust’ tracing, testing and quarantine policy to know about the hotspots and seal them. “Currently there are more than seven hundred such smart lockdowns in place,” he said according to the publication. He said that the country is also beefing up its healthcare system in order to facilitate more patients, adding that the government has formulated its policies based on best evidence on the virus and assessment of its own socio-economic condition. The SAPM also lauded the role and guidance rendered by the WHO during the pandemic. In a letter to the Punjab government on Tuesday, the WHO lauded the provincial government’s efforts in response to the pandemic.
However, the global health watchdog also recommended enforcing a strict two-week lockdown in Punjab as the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow in the province. Cases increasing beyond 100,000 in Pakistan is a cause for concern, WHO said, adding that the SOPs should be followed vigorously. As of today, Pakistan recorded more than 113,500 cases of the virus and above 2,200 deaths. Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza on Wednesday said that the World Health Organisation is viewing the Covid-19 situation in the country through a “health lens” whereas the government has to look at the “holistic picture”.
He was referring to a letter from the world health body in which it had recommended that the country impose an “intermittent lockdown” to curb the spread of Covid-19, noting that the country doesn’t meet any prerequisites for lifting restrictions as was done on May 1 and then on May 22. The letter dated June 7 was penned by Dr Palitha Mahipala, WHO Country Head for Pakistan, and stated that the coronavirus has spread to almost all districts in the country, with major cities making up a majority of national cases. “The government’s choice of policies has been guided by the best evidence available about the disease spread and our best assessment of the fast deteriorating socio-economic conditions in the country,” the SAPM responded in a statement.
Mirza said that the government was pursuing a “holistic strategy to combat the coronavirus”. He added that a ministerial level meeting took place at the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) every day in which the government with the help of experts “reviewed the disease data and trends very minutely and took a holistic view of the situation along with the provinces and developed recommendations”. The SAPM said Pakistan was a low middle-income country where two thirds of the people were dependent on day-to-day earnings. “[The government] has made best sovereign decisions in the best interest of our people,” Mirza said. He added, however, that the government has to make “tough policy choices” to maintain the balance between lives and livelihoods. He said that although the lockdown had been eased, there was increased focus on enforcing the standard operating procedures (SOPs) issued by the government to prevent the spread of the virus.
He noted that wearing masks in public had been made compulsory and the government had developed a “robust” mechanism for dealing with the spread of Covid-19 which includes tracing, testing and quarantine to identify and seal off hotspots. He added that another strategy included shoring up the health system to cope with the influx of patients. Mirza said the government “appreciated” the WHO’s recommendations but it had to look at a “holistic picture and make decisions on relative risk assessment basis”.
“This has been the case in Pakistan all along,” he added. The WHO, in its letter, said that Pakistan has been ranked among the top 10 countries in the world reporting the highest number of new cases of Covid-19 and advised the government to enhance daily testing capacity to 50,000 to assess the actual prevalence of coronavirus across the country. While expressing concern over the hasty lifting of restrictions, the WHO said Pakistan did not meet any of the prerequisites for opening of the lockdown. It also alerted Pakistan to its high positivity rate, underlining seriousness of the Covid-19 situation and poor efforts of the government in this regard. As a strategy to help contain the massive transmission of coronavirus, the WHO recommended the imposition of a two-week lockdown. “WHO strongly recommends the two weeks off and two weeks on strategy as it offers the smallest curve,” the letter said. Alerting Pakistan to its high positivity with weak surveillance system, the WHO said: “The positivity rate is high at 24 per cent (above the required level of 5pc), the surveillance system (identify, test, isolate, care for the ill including identification and follow up of contacts and quarantining) is weak.
“Decisions will require the need to balance response directly to Covid-19, which includes intermittent lockdowns of target areas (districts, towns, section of the town or village) as a first option and should be dealt on priority basis while simultaneously engaging in strategic planning and coordinated action to maintain essential health services delivery, mitigating the risk of system collapse,” the letter added. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan has jumped to 113,702 after detection of record 5,328 new infections in last 24 hours, media reported on Wednesday. According to the latest data released by the National Command and Operation Center, death toll from COVID-19 is currently recorded at 2,255 with 83 more virus-related deaths reported in the past 24 hours. According to NCOC, 41,303 cases have been detected in Sindh, 43,460 in Punjab, 14,527 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 7,031 in Balochistan, 5,963 in Islamabad, 444 in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and 974 in Gilgit Baltistan.