Coronavirus vaccination campaigns have rolled out across many Arab countries for front-line health care workers and people with high-risk medical conditions. Meanwhile, many educators are vying for teachers and professors to have one of the first spots in line behind them.
“Professors are exposed to daily danger due to crowding in the classroom, which should make them a priority in getting vaccination,” said Najm al-Din Jweideh, general coordinator of the Union of Tunisian University Teachers and Researchers. “This should help also in supporting the education process to keep it going on without interruptions.”
The union, known as IJABA, has called for vaccinating professors, teachers and students across the country as soon as possible.
As the pandemic continues to disrupt education—and with many countries offering in-person instruction only part-time or operating entirely online—it’s unclear when teachers and professors will be vaccinated. Advocates for educators hope earlier vaccine access could increase chances of returning to face-to-face learning and bolster safety for people thrust into these essential roles. (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
“Most of our classrooms are usually very crowded,” said a professor at a public university in Amman, who asked not to be named. “We should be considered among high risk people, or we won’t be able to teach normally.”
Gulf Nations Lead the Way
The first Arab countries to begin vaccinating their citizens and residents were also among the richest: Saudi Arabia Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
Across Saudi Arabia, several universities have opened coronavirus vaccination centers as part of efforts to support the kingdom’s inoculation drive, according to the Saudi Press Agency. The centers in the capital, Riyadh, will be located at King Saud University, Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, Majmaah University and Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University. The University of Bisha, in the southwestern province of Asir, will also open a vaccine center.
In Mecca, Umm al-Qura University is setting up an inoculation center. Al Abdul Rahman Saeed, a professor of psychology there, seems happy about that.
“Such a step will help largely in restoring the educational process to a normal situation,” he said. “And I am sure it will cover students as well soon.”
A Step Toward Reopening Schools
Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health has indeed prioritized teachers and administrative staff for the vaccine.
“As an educator in higher education, I am relieved that the Qatari authorities have taken the wise decision to prioritize the vaccination of schoolteachers and university faculty,” said Josef Meri, a historian of interfaith relations in the Middle East at the College of Islamic Studies, part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University.
“As an educator in higher education, I am relieved that the Qatari authorities have taken the wise decision to prioritize the vaccination of schoolteachers and university faculty.”Josef Meri
A historian of interfaith relations in the Middle East
Schools and universities in Qatar have allowed blended learning, mixing online instruction with some in-class activities, and this will be the norm until the end of the academic year and possibly beyond. (See a related article, “A Vision for Quality Online and Blended Education in the Arab World.”)
“Once all front-line workers are immunized, only then can we cautiously turn to the urgent task of revitalizing our communities by helping our students to readjust and gradually increasing face-to-face learning,” Meri said.
Still, the United Arab Emirates stands out. The country of almost 10 million people has one of the highest vaccination rates globally. More than two million residents and citizens have already been vaccinated, using the Pfizer/BioNTech shot and China’s Sinopharm vaccine. Many were professors and teachers.
Eligible, but Still Waiting
The World Health Organization, or WHO, has already recommended that teachers be prioritized for the Covid-19 vaccine, and some educators will be vaccinated because they qualify for other reasons, such as age or having a chronic health condition. Still, delays in delivery and the limited access to vaccines make this goal far from implementation in many non-oil Arab countries.
Egypt has just begun vaccinating its people, starting with medical workers, with the Sinopharm shot. The medical staff of all public universities’ hospitals, a total of 37,000 people, have already been vaccinated. In addition to the Sinopharm vaccine, the Egyptian government said it has signed a deal for 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, covering an additional 10 percent of the population.
Hussam Abdel-Hadi, professor of radiology at the Faculty of Medicine at Minia University, believes that vaccinating professors and teachers on a priority basis is a necessity.
“We do not have the luxury to postpone the study or have it online for a long time,” he said. “We know that teaching remotely is not ideal for most students and we need to go back to normal classrooms as soon as possible.”
In Tunisia, the government was expecting an initial shipment of more than 93,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca jabs in mid-February under the United Nations-led COVAX alliance, but delivery was delayed. The first shots were administered last week for health care workers, soldiers and security officers, plus people over 65 and people with chronic health problems.
Iraq has agreed to purchase 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and is receiving additional doses from AstraZeneca and Sinopharm. But those will cover only a small percentage of its 40 million people, despite the country’s having grappled with repeated surges in Covid-19 cases.
Little Help for Those in War Zones
WHO is organizing the distribution plans for middle to low-income countries through programs like the COVAX alliance, a global initiative with 190 participating nations aimed at working with manufacturers to provide countries worldwide with equitable access to vaccines.
Still, war-torn countries such as Yemen and Syria must contend with vague timelines and complex distribution plans for the rollout, despite being among the worst affected by the virus.
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“We are going to die from hunger here,” said a Damascus schoolteacher and mother of two children. “Our main concerns, more than anything else, are food and fuel.”
Food prices in Syria have more than doubled in the last year. The United Nations’ World Food Program warned in February that 60 percent of Syrians, or 12.4 million people, were at risk of going hungry, the highest number ever recorded.
“No one is caring about how we can eat to survive,” the Damascus teacher added, “so who will care if we have been vaccinated or not?”