NEET, JEE row: Three reasons why conducting exams in September could lead to a nightmare scenario

Evidence has shown that when it comes to contracting the coronavirus, being outdoors is 20 times safer than being indoors. In fact, those highest at risk are often in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation. Sounds familiar?

Deven Kanal August 27, 2020 21:42:45 IST
NEET, JEE row: Three reasons why conducting exams in September could lead to a nightmare scenario

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, it has been so often said that the aphorism has been reduced to cliche.

But sometimes, the cliche fits.

On Wednesday, as India's coronavirus case count rose to 32,34, 474 with 67,151 testing positive, the argument over holding the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) and National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) grew ever more heated with some students and Opposition parties demanding that the exams be postponed and the Centre holding firm.

Follow LIVE Updates on NEET, JEE 2020 Exam News

Education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank said the Centre's decision to go ahead with the exams in September was based on "pressure from students and parents".

He further told Hindustan Times that he had received innumerable emails from "the silent majority" (a phrase popularised by former US president Richard Nixon and thus lending further credence to the time is a flat circle theory).

The National Testing Agency (NTA) which is in charge of conducting these exams for lakhs of students (8.58 lakh candidates have registered for the JEE-Mains, 15.97 lakh students have registered for the NEET), meanwhile, said its goal in holding these exams is an attempt "to save one academic year".

Which is indeed a noble goal.

But despite the NTA releasing a comprehensive list of precautions that will be taken during the exams, including staggered time slots to avoid crowding, temperature checks for students and staff and separate isolation rooms for anyone displaying COVID-19 symptoms, here are three reasons why conducting the JEE and NEET in September could potentially lead to a nightmare scenario.

Indoor transmission

Evidence has shown that when it comes to contracting the coronavirus, being outdoors is 20 times safer than being indoors. In fact, those highest at risk are often in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation.

Sounds familiar?

We all know that the coronavirus is spread via the infected releasing large droplets via coughing and sneezing or contact with an infected surface (as happened in the NBA).

Which is bad.

But mounting scientific evidence has shown the coronavirus can spend hours hanging in the air in tiny droplets and infecting people as they inhale.  Which is far worse. Because an asymptomatic carrier can release these tiny droplets (called aerosols) even in the mere act of exhaling.

All it takes is one indoor person, in an indoor space (an exam hall for example), releasing enough aerosols to infect others. And then you could have a super-spreader event on your hands.

Which has already occurred, most notably in South Korea and the United States.

In March, South Korea found itself from going to dealing with just a few cases to quickly dealing with the largest outbreak outside of China after 'Patient 31', an unidentified 61-year-old woman and the member of a small church, attended services alongside 1,000 other members and caused a 30-fold increase within the country in a week.

That same month, Washington saw what was dubbed a super-spreader event in which one infected person in a choir ended up making 52 others sick. Two choir members later passed away of COVID-19. A Chicago cluster of 16 cases, including three deaths, stemmed from a funeral and a birthday party.

And as the Trump administration seems bound and determined to get on with things, a Georgia school has seen over 250 students and teachers under quarantine after just five days of reopening.

While the NTA has repeatedly stressed the precautions being taken for students and staff, all it takes is one asymptomatic person.

The myth of invincibility

There is a tendency, both for governments and society, to think of the coronavirus as a problem mainly for the elderly and those with comorbidities.

While this is generally true, young people, even in the prime of their physical lives, remain vulnerable to the virus.

The World Health Organisation has already had to issue repeated warnings to the youth.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in March had said: "Today I have a message for young people: you are not invincible. This virus could put you in hospital for weeks, or even kill you."

Just a few weeks ago, Ghebreyesus said: “Young people can be infected; young people can die; and young people can transmit the virus to others. "Even if you don't get sick, the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else."

The last part of that statement, coming among reports that young people are now primary drivers of the pandemic, particularly in the Americas, is key. This is because of the RO factor.

RO factor

It is with good reason that the coronavirus has been likened to wildfire.  The virus spreads much more efficiently in densely populated areas.

The coronavirus reproduction rate, or RO (pronounced R-naught), which has been estimated by the World Health Organisation as 2.5.

Simply put, the RO is a measure of a virus' transmission or the number of new infections generated by each case. An RO rate of 1, for example, means on average each infected person will infect one other person they come in contact with.

Any young person who contracts the virus could thus potentially spread it to their parents, grandparents, siblings (after all, millions of families live in cramped quarters across the country), or anyone else they come into contact with.

This could prove dire.

Far from children being "practically immune" to the coronavirus (as some have falsely claimed), studies have shown children in ICU carrying a much higher viral load than adults.

A higher infected load equates to a higher chance of spreading the disease further. And we all know that people in the older age groups are already at a much higher risk of dying from COVID.

The Supreme Court, earlier this month, dismissing a plea that sought postponement of these exams stated that 'life should move on' even in times of COVID-19, which is a fair point.

Life, as one great philosopher pointed out, finds a way. Life moves on.

Just not for the 8,20,000 souls lost to the coronavirus around the world, including over 60,000 in India.

Or the millions they left behind, some of whom are in recovery themselves and who will continue to be afflicted in its aftermath for months, and even years.

Perhaps "saving one academic year", as noble a goal as that may be, entirely misses the bigger picture.

That conducting these exams in September, in the absence of a vaccine, could potentially lead to a South Korea-like situation and result in an explosion of cases across the country.

With inputs from PTI

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