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Remote-learning begins in virus-hit Philippines

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Grade and high school students in the Philippines began classes at home Monday after the coronavirus pandemic forced remote-learning onto an educational system already struggling to fund schools.

The shift to distance-learning has been a logistical nightmare for the poverty-stricken Southeast Asian country that has long lacked enough classrooms, teachers and educational equipment. Nearly 25 million students enrolled this year in mostly 47,000 public schools nationwide that would have to be replicated in homes and enlist the help of parents and guardians as co-teachers.

A majority of families, especially from poor and rural communities, opted to use government-provided digital or printed learning materials or “modules,” which students would read at home with the guidance of their elders before carrying out specified activities. Most lacked computers and reliable internet connections. Teachers could answer questions by telephone.

The rest of the families preferred for their children to get lessons online or through regional radio and TV educational broadcasts.

“The system may not be perfect and there may be issues as we shift to flexible learning … but we are confident that the Department of Education would address these challenges,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.

President Rodrigo Duterte has said school classes should resume only when a COVID-19 vaccine has been made available, fearing classrooms could become infection hotspots.

The Philippines has reported more than 322,400 infections, the highest in Southeast Asia, with more than 5,700 deaths.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Sri Lankan authorities closed a university and imposed restrictions on buses and trains on Monday, a day after a COVID-19 patient was reported from the community for the first time in two months. A curfew was imposed Sunday in the Colombo suburbs where the patient lived, and about 15 hospital staff and 40 co-workers have been quarantined. The state-run University of Kelaniya in the area was also closed down for a week starting from Monday. Buses and trains must transport passengers according to the number of seats, and commuters must wear masks. Schools countrywide have been closed down. For more than two months, health officials have been saying that they have prevented the community spread of the virus. The country has reported 3,388 confirmed cases, including 13 deaths. Of the total, 3,254 have recovered.

— India registered 74,442 new coronavirus cases, driving the country’s tally to 6.6 million. The Health Ministry on Monday also reported 903 deaths in the past 24 hours, taking total fatalities to 102,685. India, the second worst-affected nation in the world after the United States, is witnessing a sustained decline in new coronavirus infections and active virus cases have remained below the million mark for 14 consecutive days. It still is registering the highest number of daily cases globally and is soon expected to cross the U.S. which has 7.4 million confirmed coronavirus cases.

— South Korea reported 73 new cases of the coronavirus, although officials worry of a potential rise after the five-day holiday period that ended Sunday. Health

unwanted pregnancies in virus-hit S.Africa

South African student Jessica* had already missed two periods when she shyly slipped into a clinic to seek an abortion in early July, as the coronavirus outbreak was reaching its peak.

Nurses scurrying to accomodate a long line of patients with varying ailments told the 19-year-old that the clinic was “fully booked” and advised her to try at a hospital.

Two months later, with the help of a local rights group lobbying hospitals to assist, Jessica was finally booked in for a procedure that required surgery — rather than pills — due to the delay.

And it was almost too late. Another dozen days would have taken Jessica past 20 weeks, the legal limit to terminate a pregnancy in South Africa.  

“It was draining. It was the worst thing I have experienced,” she told AFP via telephone two weeks after the operation. 

The pandemic has made access to legal abortion services and contraception more difficult in South Africa, according to charities and health workers.

They believe that movement restrictions, overstretched hospitals and disrupted drug supplies led to unwanted pregnancies that many women failed to discontinue.

“Facilities were focused on fighting the pandemic,” said Whitney Chinogwenya, spokeswoman for international charity Marie Stopes in South Africa.

“So we started seeing more people coming in and saying: I went to such and such hospital and they couldn’t assist me.”

Hospitals and clinics scaled back all but essential services when a nationwide anti-coronavirus lockdown was imposed in March.

The move freed up hands and space in facilities about to confront Africa’s worst coronavirus outbreak.

But access to family planning suffered greatly as a result, particularly in already poorly-serviced rural areas.

“During Covid our whole service just came to a halt,” said a hospital doctor in the southeastern small town of Peddie.

– Fear and less privacy – 

Women seeking an abortion in Peddie were referred to far away cities.

The doctor, who did not wish to be named, suspected that most women were unable to travel such distances without raising questions — particularly during lockdown.

“It takes a lot for them to even come here and ask for an abortion,” he said, noting the stigma attached to the procedure.

“So to get here and be told that we are not providing these services must be a final nail in the coffin.”

In KwaZulu-Natal province, many women stopped visiting clinics to renew their contraceptive injections — the most widely-used form of free birth control in South Africa.

A nurse overseeing reproductive health services in the area suspected they held back “from fear of catching coronavirus” and because of limited privacy.

“Women leaving their homes were likely to be questioned,” she said, pointing to widespread misconceptions about contraception.

By the end of May, the nurse, also speaking anonymously, noticed a sudden surge in the number of women seeking to end pregnancies.

By then, the few facilities providing abortions were swamped by coronavirus and many were short on drugs.

Abortion pill suppliers said imports were