Dear Education Minister: Protect children’s health - Relax some back-to-school measures
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An Open Letter to the Minister of Basic Education, Ms Angelina Motshekga, the Department of Basic Education, South African epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist Prof Salim Abdool Karim, executive director of ISASA Mr Lebogang Montjane, and the ISASA team, Heads of Schools and educational leaders in South Africa as well as the Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize, the Department of Health and the advisors to the DBE (click here to view a video of this letter being read).
My name is Nicola Aylward and I am a physiotherapist, a breathwork practitioner, a mindfulness teacher, an educator in women’s health and in stress management, as well as an active and concerned citizen of South Africa. I am a member of professional bodies related to all these spheres of my work, but the opinions in this letter are my own and are not official representation of any professional body I may be a member of. However I have been approached by, and write on behalf of, many, many concerned parents, medical practitioners, teachers and citizens.
I have been reading on the South African Government website some of the preparations that are in place for re-opening of schools and for when learners are back at school. There is a great deal of fear and concern at the moment – some valid and some we need to review and perhaps dispel as we understand this virus, and the real statistics, and the progress of it more.
One thing that my South African education taught me, and I see it teaching our 3 children and the other learners at their schools too, is to think critically, to evaluate, to ask questions, and not to just accept and follow blindly. And to do this is in a constructive way. In fact I think many of us have been “wrapped over the knuckles” a few times in our lives when our excuse for doing something “wrong” was that someone else told us to do it. Many teachers and heads (and parents) have uttered the admonishment “well if your friend told you to jump off a building would you do that too?” And so from a young age we are taught and encouraged to think for ourselves. I think that this is a time that we need to model this for our children. We need to think rationally and critically.
There are many protocols being talked about and proposed, and I’ve even read ones about schools being sanitised every night, pupils entering schools through sanitisation tunnels, pupils and teachers having to wear masks for the whole school day, and more. These measures profoundly distress me both as a parent and a healthcare practitioner. In a recent blog I wrote (I have linked it here too), I discussed the importance of such measures as a “short term crutch” to help us get THROUGH “this time” when slowing the spread of the virus was imperative. These adopted measures have allowed for time for hospitals and our Department of Health to prepare, and for us to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. But we cannot come to rely on such measures long term – it will negatively affect our own ongoing health and wellbeing by severely compromising our immune systems. In the article I link 3 other articles/videos, including studies from PubMed, our medical publication and research library, that discuss how dangerous over-sanitisation is for our own body’s micro-biome (which is the foundation for our health and immune system). These are just 3 articles of many that research and discuss this same issue. This understanding of our micro-biome, and how our immune system works and develops, has been widely accepted and understood by the medical community until now, but all of this seems to have been abandoned in the face of fear. Children and their bodies are particularly vulnerable in this situation as they have a developing immune system, a far more sensitive skin, and a lower toxic load and tolerance in their bodies. This has been shown too, and is discussed in many of these research articles. For the school to be sterilised every night and for children to go through sanitisation tunnels will do far more harm than good in the long term – it is like using an anti-biotic every time we feel a little sick “just in case”. Very soon we will have no natural immune system as we will have “wiped it clean”.
The prolonged usage of masks is also very concerning to me as a physiotherapist, and as a breathwork practitioner. Masks too have never been part of medical advice for anyone other than surgeons and doctors who are trying to protect their patients from their own (the doctor’s) germs while engaging with them – examining them, treating them, performing surgery, and so on. And this is for good reason. Masks do not stop the spread of viruses. They stop spittle from leaving our mouths and landing on someone else. But so does standing a meter away from someone – and it doesn’t have the side-effects of prolonged mask usage. When we breathe into a mask, particularly a fabric mask, it stops the free flow of oxygen into our lungs and carbon dioxide out. The carbon dioxide we exhale gets caught in the mask (medical masks allow for more airflow than fabric masks) and then that same air is the air that we then breathe back in again. We get no “fresh” oxygen, in fact, we inhale air heavy in carbon dioxide (CO₂). CO₂ is an asphyxiant and high levels of CO₂ in our blood have been linked to toxaemia (poisoning) of our system and neurological damage. It can also cause acidosis and we know that an acidic environment is the environment in which disease flourishes. Increased CO₂ levels as described here, as well as mouth breathing, claustrophobia and over-breathing (which are all side effects associated with prolonged mask usage) can cause feelings of anxiety, they activate the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight”, and are commonly associated with panic attacks. This short article explains some of the issues well. I’m sure that we would agree that we would not want any of this for our children who are already experiencing this as an enormously stressful time of their lives. The use of masks as we are experiencing now for short term usage (like for half an hour or an hour) when visiting shops, travelling on public transport, and standing close to people in public, is understandable. But as a sustained measure, fabric masks and plastic face masks are not helpful, and in fact they are dangerous, and especially when we are moving around and exercising.
And so when you as the Department of Education and the Heads of our Schools reassure us that you are putting measures in place to mitigate risks, I am concerned that they may be such measures. Appropriate measures would be for teachers not to stand too close to pupils, and to have running water and soap on hand for the pupils to wash their hands often. That is sufficient. This interview between Dr Luke on Call and well respected South African paediatric pulmonologist, Dr Fiona Kritzinger, explains the risks and approach well. It discusses how children are very low spreaders and even not spreaders at all, as Prof Karim has recently also confirmed. Dr Kritzinger quotes studies and data that is very helpful, has suggestions for parents with potentially vulnerable children, and offers a wise and well balanced professional opinion. We should rather be looking at measures like suggesting the learners all take high dose 1000mg vitamin C daily, that they take a good quality Vitamin D and zinc supplement – there is a lot of science and research to support these measures and I can supply you with references for multiple studies on all of these. Perhaps if the government poured money into providing this for learners (as well as educating on healthy food, healthy diets, exercise, and stress management tools) instead of intensely sterilising schools, it would have far more long term benefit for the people of this country.
So our fear is not of our children getting sick. It is quite the contrary. I am concerned that our children’s very precious immune systems, which they have built up over not only their own lives, but has also been developed over the life times of their mothers and ancestors – as much of our immune system is passed on to our babies through the processes of natural birth and breastfeeding – and even their very foundation of health, will be compromised by these extreme measures which have NO science or medical research to back them. Of course, there may be individual cases of children or families who are more vulnerable and may need more “protection”, and those can be looked at individually as Dr Kritzinger suggests.
Our pupils are at a time in their lives that they are learning to have confidence in their bodies, and in their own resilience and strength. We must think very carefully about the messages we are giving them by how we chose to handle this situation – these are themes that will play out through the rest of their lives. It is a big responsibility for educators and schools to bear.
So our decisions around sending our children back to school are not based around fear for them or our family “catching” Covid-19. I explore this more in a previous article “We were made for time like these”. Our concern is focused around the measures which may be instigated that will undermine their long term health and wellness, as well as their confidence in their bodies and their ability to think critically and to question, and not just to blindly follow. As Prof Karim has also recently asserted, this virus will not disappear in the next few weeks – we will have to learn to live with it for many months or even years, just as we have done with every other viral infection, outbreak and pandemic that has gone before this, and will have to do for the many more to come.
I implore you to please bear this in mind while you are making decisions for South African children, and our precious teachers. There is a lot at stake here. Our children and their health, and the future of our country’s health, lie in your hands and will be profoundly affected by how you chose to handle this very moment in time. This is not something we can reverse. And it is not something that we can afford to get wrong. Please do your OWN full research and critical thinking on this. You have enormous responsibility and this is your duty as public servants.
And perhaps there is a much bigger picture in this all. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Africa, and in fact South Africa, to lead the way? We’ve led the way for the world before when, led by Nelson Mandela and his incredible and wise team, some of whom are still leading our country today, including our President Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, we showed the world what peaceful reconciliation and forgiveness looked like – something that the world had rarely seen. Perhaps it is now time to lead the world again? South Africa does not have to be a follower. We need to find skilful and wise measures for building health based on science and research and not on fear. We have our own experts including Extra-ordinary Professor of Immunology at Stellenbosch University, Patrick Bouic, who are able to advise our government on how to proceed. Please watch this very helpful interview with him attached here where he states “let nutrition be your medicine” and discusses the importance of our gut microbes in our immune system (which is what we will eradicate with over-sanitising), as well as the simple risk factors of developing diabetes and obesity – including fizzy drinks and refined foods.
Do not take this lightly – you will have to be held accountable when we see the results of these decisions reflected in our country and our children’s health in just a couple of years’ time.
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