COVID-19 cases continue climb in the state, but this was only to be expected. First, it has to be kept in mind this is a pandemic and Manipur, or any other place on earth, could not have remained an untouched island forever especially so in this globalised world. It was only time before Manipur would have had to face and deal with the crisis. Second, Manipur has so many of its young population who have migrated to the metropolises of the country to look for work, and many more to pursue college and university education. Many amongst the first were in dire financial straits because of the extended lockdown in the country to stem the COVID crisis. Many of their work places have shut down, leaving them with no salary, therefore facing the prospect of eviction from the rented accommodation, and starvation. Many or most of the students too were in similar predicaments as their hostels and messes closed. At every available opportunity, they have been flooding back into the state and some of them have come back with virus. Let us face it, this is a reality Manipur cannot and could not have run away from regardless of the most selfish in our society continuing to suggest these young men and women should not have been allowed to return until the crisis got over, without bothering to imagine the sufferings they would have been put through. Other than fighting away the virus, as a civilised society, everybody one of us needs equally to keep sanity and humanity. As experts have said, and as also common sense informs us, the need is to keep all new arrivals under quarantine till they have tested negative for the virus, or if found positive, looked after by health professionals till they are free of the virus. The effort must be to ensure that beyond these quarantine centres, the rest of Manipur remains green and free of the virus. If our health infrastructure gets too strained, perhaps a regulation of the inflow of returnees can be thought of to keep our graph flat and within our capacity to handle. Keep in mind this inflow cannot be infinite, and in all likelihood, nearly half are already here, and therefore this extra burden cannot extend more than a month or so. In this fight, hard work and cooperation of all is vital.
The battle however cannot be just against the virus and its possible spread. It now has also to be about salvaging as much of our economy. If the current lockdown disables all of the activities which once constituted normal life, needless to say our economy and so much more will be crushed beyond easy repair. This can also be disastrous and long lasting as the scourges of the disease itself. This being so, it is time now to fight a two-pronged battle. On one hand, the uncompromising effort must be to keep the virus within the quarantine and containment zones only, and never allow a community spread. Outside of these containment zones, restrictions to economic activities must be eased to the extent possible. Alongside this, our other important institutions, such as schools and colleges must begin to open up cautiously and in phases. Indeed, if official indications are to go by, schools will be opening in the next few weeks, or at the most a month. This will be happening in much of the rest of the country too. Unlike schools, the urgency to open colleges and universities probably will not be as much. The presumption is, students at this stage will be much more mature and capable of studying on their own. But they too much ultimately open, the sooner the better, the caveat in both cases of course is on the precondition that necessary precautions to prevent contracting or spreading COVID, the prescribed methods for which are now more or less universal knowledge. As many well-known educationists and intellectuals have convincingly argued in the course of the last few weeks, the experience of actual classrooms cannot ever be completely substituted by virtual ones on the internet.
In this regard, it is interesting that an expert committee formed by the state government has recommended strategies for not only reopening schools, but also to ensure courses are completed within the academic year despite the loss of nearly three months to the COVID lockdown. One of the recommendations in particular is contentious for it plans to shorten syllabuses so that it will fit into the shortened academic year on account of the months lost. While this is fine for the lower classes, it may not be exactly to the purpose when it comes to the higher classes where students are preparing not just for the annual promotion examinations, but also for all India competitive examinations which will launch them into the paths for the future careers. For most, this aligning of focus begins around the 9th Standard. Since it is unlikely the standards of these all Indian competitive exams will lower, condensing the syllabus at home may amount to a big loss for our students. As for instance, the NEET examinations for qualification for medical studies will not likely shrink its syllabus because the aptitude requirement for medical studies cannot be lowered. So then, how must the current problem of having lost three months of school academic years be resolved. The answer probably is evident in the fact that the problem is not peculiar to the Manipur alone, and is indeed an all-India one. The whole country would have lost the same number of school days as Manipur, therefore, in all likelihood, rather than shrink syllabuses, the resort will be an extension of the academic year by a month or two. This being reasonably certain, education policy makers in Manipur should first coordinate with the CBSE and other school boards, as well as with other state school boards to come to a consensus on the way forward. Only this will ensure our high school and higher secondary school students do not lose out.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author