Online learning prompts error message
Since the second Covid-19 outbreak began, the government under ex-junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha has been bumbling its way trying to find the right mix of solutions.
The situation admittedly is more complicated than in the first outbreak. There have been a larger number of infected people, though fewer deaths, and many more provinces affected.
Another national lockdown would have pummelled the economy, already weakened by the first lockdown. So, that was pretty much out of the question.
Even so, partial restrictions ordered by the government have caused hardship to ordinary people's lives as well as most small businesses. The affected people rightly expect the government to come to their rescue.
Two handout programmes have been particularly popular. The first gives 3,500 baht a month for two months to a certain number of people. The other sets up a limited amount to encourage successfully registered persons to spend an equal amount.
Both are popular but also inadequate and demeaning. The first does not cover all deserving people. The second makes people scramble online to book the privilege. It's like throwing money into the air and letting people fight for the bank notes as they land.
However, they give temporary relief to the pain of the pandemic. The second outbreak is worrisome because of the large number of people infected and the speed at which the infection has spread.
But now the infection trajectory appears to be going downward and the transmission rate seems to be decelerating.
These are definitely positive signs. However, it would be unrealistic to expect the transmission rate to go down to zero. Health experts have been warning that the virus will be with us for a long time, if not forever.
So, it seems sensible that now is the time to consider the virus as a part of our life and think of strategies to live with it.
One of the first government orders to contain the virus is to close down schools. This single order immediately impacts millions of students and parents and other family members.
The impact is so widespread and touches so deep that education experts are worried that their progress and ability to learn could be stunted.
What the pandemic has revealed is that our system was unprepared to offer online learning on many fronts. There are not enough computers to go around. Not every household has internet access.
But the most severe problem is inadequate levels of digital literacy among students, parents and even teachers and school administrators.
In many cases, online learning means self-learning, not virtual learning. Students download lessons to study and school work to be completed, then upload finished work to be checked by their teachers. Communication is done mainly through applications such as Line or Facebook Messenger.
Voice or video communication is practically absent in these instances.
Students need to have necessary equipment with an internet connection and the skills to operate them. That leaves a large number of students out in the cold.
This situation cannot be allowed to go on indefinitely. Students should be allowed to go back to class as normal as soon as possible. Needless to say, necessary measures need to be put in place before that can happen.
There are reasonable fears that schools could become infection hotspots if they return to normal, although the jury is still out on that issue.
Studies in Europe and by the World Health Organization have found that while transmission can occur in the school setting, school outbreaks have not been a prominent feature in the pandemic.
Transmission in schools appears to be affected by the levels of community transmission, but schools being open did not lead to rise in community spread where infection was low, the studies say.
Children under 10 appear to be less susceptible than older children. Most infected children are asymptomatic. Some health analysts say data shows that young children are less likely to transmit the virus.
What this says is that it is possible to devise measures to mitigate infection while allowing children, particularly younger ones, to return to schools. This would allow the children to be among their peers and their parents to work without disruptions.
Other economic activities could be allowed to resume with well-thought-out preventive measures. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has begun to move in this direction with its announcement allowing 13 types of businesses to resume operation.
However, to ensure the resumption of these activities does not lead to a rise in transmission, the authorities should have trained personnel tasked with making spot checks as well as lend support where appropriate, without intention to penalise. We need all the cooperation we can get.
Fortunately, the health system appears to be capable of handling the current rate of infections and vaccines are expected from mid-February, but precautions remain essential.
The government should begin making preparations to allow normalcy to return to the country as soon as possible. And these preparations should include not just issuing orders but also measures to support businesses and the public to transition smoothly and successfully into newer, safer ways of doing thing.
Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.