Who is to blame when kids drown?

May 16, 2022 | 04:39 pm PT
Truong Chi Hung Writer
Who is to blame when kids drown?
Kids play in a river on the outskirts of Hanoi during the summer. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy
Schools often get all the opprobrium when children drown, but they are not the only ones responsible for their students' safety; parents are as well.

My father taught me how to swim when I was five.

He took two coconuts and secured them together with a cloth to make a makeshift buoy. I used it to keep afloat as I flailed at the water in the middle of a flooded field.

When I figured out how to stay afloat, my father took away the coconuts and planted two poles, two meters apart, in the water. I had to swim from one to the other.

With each passing day the poles got further apart. One day I was able to swim all the way to the furthest part and make it back to land safely.

It was how I and my siblings learned to swim. It was how all the kids in the Mekong Delta did. Our parents were not professional coaches, and merely passed down their experience to their children. Yet I rarely heard of anyone drowning in my hometown.

My father said parents started thinking about teaching their children how to swim as soon as they were able to walk. It only takes a small mistake to lose one's life in the waters of the delta. We used to get flooded for months every year. When all you see around you is water, swimming is the difference between life or death.

Nowadays, even as flooding is becoming less frequent in the delta, I start to see an increase in the number of drowning deaths.

According to a report by the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, over 2,000 children in Vietnam die of drowning every year, much higher than in many other countries. Not even 30 percent of kids in primary and middle schools know how to swim.

Several of the drowning cases I have seen lately involved multiple deaths. Kids often go in groups, and if one of them is swept away by the water, others are likely to jump in to help.

But the survival instinct means they hold on to each other, dragging them all down. Even a good swimmer would not be able to stay safe during a rescue attempt.

Drowning deaths are often attributed to a lack of adult supervision or unfortunate accidents. But the core reason for the tragedy is that many kids these days simply do not get swimming lessons, and are not equipped with the skills or knowledge required to recognize danger in the water.

A retired friend, who used to be a ferry captain, often swam in the many rivers of the delta, like the Tien, Hau and Co Chien.

He knows just how dangerous water can be for someone untrained. So he spent his retirement teaching kids in his hometown Tien Giang to swim for free. But many parents were unwilling to let their children attend his class. If adults do not see the importance of swimming, how can children?

Schools often shoulder the blame when a kid drowns. Why aren't there swimming programs? Why have they not taught students basic survival skills? It is obvious that swimming needs to be a compulsory subject in school.

But the truth is that schools have great difficulty with lack of teachers, funding and even a single pool for their students. How will they teach them swimming then?

The labor ministry says over 55 percent of children who drown are from poor families, mainly in rural areas. Rural kids are twice as likely to die of drowning as their urban peers. Rural schools also find it much more difficult to have resources to teach their students how to swim.

We cannot blame the education system for everything. With swimming not a compulsory subject in school, each of us could do our part to equip our children with the basic means to survive in water.

Every step counts.

*Truong Chi Hung is a writer. The opinions expressed are his own.

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