Until March 20, when President Peter Arthur Mutharika (PAM) declared the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) a national disaster and issued several directives aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus, some Malawians treated Covid-19 as a disease affecting other countries. Schools, colleges and universities were closed, gatherings of people in excess of 100 banned, a K15 billion kwacha national responses set up and politicisation of the pandemic discouraged.
Since that day, the Malawi government anti-Covid-19 fund has received generous amounts of money from Unicef, UNDP and others to achieve three core results: strengthening health systems, including procurement and supply chain management; inclusive and multi-sectoral crisis management and response and socio-economic impact assessment and recovery.
Although we have not conducted our own research nor read any evaluation report from the authorities managing the anti-Covid-19 effort, we can say, with minimal trepidation, that many people have now heard about the coronavirus and its disease, Covid-19 although people tend to refer both simply as kolona.
In short, the public awareness seems to be working. And in urban centres, the evidence is there for all to see that people have abided by the presidential directive. At the entrances to almost every shop there is a bucket and soap for customers to wish their hands, thoroughly.
Only the DPP/UDF Alliance seems to have defied the presidential directive as it has allegedly produced branded hand sanistisers campaigning for PAM as president in the July 2020 election.
As social and behaviour change communication and epidemiology scholarship demonstrates, it is extremely difficult ascertain what people do in their homes. Public display of behaviour does not necessarily match what people do in the privacy of their homes.
In our homes, are we washing our hands thoroughly and frequently with soap? Are we covering our noses and mouths each time we are leaving our homes? Are we cleaning or sanitising our workspaces, door handles, etc?
Very few people have we seen in urban centres covering their faces. Scientists say appropriately covering the face is one sure way of not passing on the virus to others and not getting the virus from those who have it. Why then are we ignoring to mask our faces?
Scientists also inform us that many people who have the coronavirus are asymptomatic, that is they do not show any symptoms and don’t know they have the virus but are still capable of transmitting the virus to others.
Other than face-covering and frequent hand washing with soap, the recommended preventive measures include social or geographical distancing. Keeping a distance of at least two (2) metres apart may help to prevent infection. However, scientists also indicate that droplets from a cough can travel up to six (6) metres or further while droplets from a sneeze may go up to eight (8) metres.
The officials charged with coordinating the national response need to now ask whether they are reaching out to the rural people. Experience from the HIV and Aids pandemic indicates that our society is highly fatalistic. Despite warning about HIV and Aids dangers, initially people did not bother much and accepted death by any cause as natural. Musicians even sang jokingly. Your remember the song: Edziili mu ufa? Professional sex sellers didn’t bother much either: remember the adage: Kwathumaliro; kwanunsomaliro or Imfa inadzera anthu? Or the scriptural reference: Ndipo udzafa ndithu?
Perhaps it is time we seriously engaged and listened to chiefs, heritage associations, and religious leaders. These groups would also address issues of kusambisa maliro and other cultural practices. Traditional practices like jando, kumeta, kusesa, etc were modified in the wake of HIV and Aids. So should they be modified in the face Covid-19.
Asking people to wash their hands frequently with soap is easier said than done. There are people in Malawi who cannot afford even a bar of Bottom-Up laundry soap; not even salt. Imagine a person struggling to find food being told to wash hands with soap?
Washing requires water. Is water available at all? And face-covering requires masks. Who will ensure that every Malawian has a mask to wear when they leave their homes?
Be there next week.