The world is ravaged by Covid-19 pandemic. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are over 90 million confirmed cases with about 2.4 million deaths globally.
In Malawi, over 18 000 cases have been confirmed with a total of over 450 deaths. While half of the confirmed cases have recovered, the current surge in the number of new cases with a daily average of 500 and seven deaths is very disturbing.
The pandemic continues to cause massive disruption to every sector of life, be it economy, education, and social life. Our health system is overwhelmed. The recent call for urgent help of medical supplies and additional health workers by the country’s referral hospitals and the Society of Medical Doctors, respectively attests to this.
Over a week ago, President Lazarus Chakwera declared Malawi a State of National Disaster. This was followed by the announcement of government’s strategy to manage the pandemic and combat further spread of the virus.
The strategy, which has a price tag of K17.52 billion, entails procurement of essential medical supplies such personal protective equipment (PPE) and oxygen cylinders, hiring of additional 1 380 health workers and an increase in admission space and infrastructure, among others. All this is to save the lives of those infected.
But the critical part of the strategy is the containment of the pandemic. It is for this reason, and rightly so, that the President underscored the vital role that every citizen ought to play in this fight through adherence to prevention measures, including wearing of masks, handwashing with soap and complying with safety protocols.
At the core of the President’s appeal is behaviour change: Everyone must stop selfish and careless behaviours that help spread the virus in order to protect all. Everyone must act for the common good.
With the measures now gazetted into law, the government can enforce them and prosecute offenders. However, the enforcement of the laws cannot be effective unless there is meaningful behaviour change among the citizenry. Behaviour change, in the context of public health refers to efforts put in place of people’s personal habits and attitudes to prevent disease. Luckily, because of the nature of coronavirus, most prevention measures for the pandemic are behavioural in nature. This means that with right behaviour, we can win the battle.
Meaningful behaviour change emanates from a moral responsibility to protect all. In this case, the motivation for adherence to the measures is not merely fear of prosecution but to protect oneself and others. Legislation alone is not enough.
Without personal moral responsibility, for example, one will only wear a mask in front of a police officer and remove it when there is none in sight. The virus will still spread. The Malawi Police, or any police in the world for that matter, has no capacity to guard every corner of our villages and cities at all times to ensure that everyone is wearing a mask. And no court system has capacity to handle such cases.
With moral responsibility, every individual has a duty to adhere to the measures to protect himself or herself and others. This also enhances accountability among the people and enables individuals to assist those in need of protective supplies.
The government, donors, non-governmental organisations and all stakeholders must work together in designing and implementing interventions that promote meaningful behaviour change among the people.
Community and religious leaders must raise awareness and motivate their subjects to adhere to the measures as a moral responsibility. In a country where almost 80 percent are Christians, pastors and church leaders must act responsibly and avoid misleading their members through preaching lies about the pandemic and its vaccines.
Going forward, behaviour change must be inculcated in our children and youths at home and in schools. Parents must be empowered with relevant knowledge and skills to teach and reinforce behaviour change in their children.
Behaviour change should also be taught comprehensively in schools and institutions of higher learning. This will enable the next generation to develop a moral responsibility critical not only in the fight against a pandemic like Covid-19 but also social evils like corruption and gender-based violence in our country. n