Talk to Malawians in villages and towns and you will learn that Malawians do not perceive Covid-19 as a serious disease and a threat to their lives. Recently, the Institute for Public Opinion and Research (2020) concluded that its recent study on Covid-19 perception indicated that nearly 82 percent of Malawians did not fear Covid-19 and considered hunger more threatening. This perception could have been driven by the fact that political leaders have not led by example since Covid-19 was declared a national disaster.
Politicians have been seen in public without face masks and conducting rallies without even mentioning Covid-19 as a public health threat. Others have openly said the pandemic does not exist in Malawi or it is a hoax created by government to avoid fresh presidential elections.
In urban centres, businesses have responded positively by placing hand-washing and sanitizing facilities in their premises. Public transport is adhering to distancing measures. In some rural areas, the picture is different. People are going about their lives normally. No physical or social distancing is practiced. Minibuses and Sientas, Kabaza are packed as usual under our competent police officers watch.
With this low public perception of Covid-19, the task for preventing the rapid spread of infection falls on those who understand the disease and the devastation it is likely to cause in the medium to long terms. Africa has miraculously been spared, somehow. However, we may not be lucky for too long. Prevention remains the best cure and should be Malawi’s national anti-Covid-19 strategy.
Such as strategy should be informed by social and behaviour change communication. We propose that before pre-schools, schools, colleges and universities can open, the following conditions should be fulfilled:
1. Make regular hand-washing mandatory
All schools, colleges and universities should have handwashing facilities. Instead of soap, which is likely to be prone to abuse by students, water tanks at handwashing facilities should be chlorinated as recommended by the WHO.
2. Reduce size of classes; expand double shift Reducing the physical distance between people is one of the ways to prevent coronavirus infection. As such, our class sizes need to be reduced so that students can sit at least one metre apart. In order not to deny education to some students, the double shift system already in practice in some secondary schools should be adopted across the board.
3. Make mask wearing mandatory
The wearing of masks by both students and teachers in schools should be considered as an obligation to prevent infection. The Ministry of Education should work with the Ministry of Health and WHO to determine the type of masks that students and teachers should be wearing.
4. Hire more teachers and lecturers
The expanded doubt shift system will have implications in terms of staffing. More teachers and lecturers will be needed. In times of need, armies all over the world recruit more soldiers and recall those in retirement to serve their countries.
6. Make online learning truly unfettered to all
As a stop-gap measure, the Ministry of Education introduced online learning for all. This is truly
commendable. Yet, most parents and students have not even accessed the online facility and perceive it as a waste of time. The challenges include:
a) Lack of awareness and knowledge about the availability of the platform.
b) Established culture of traditional face-to-face teaching and learning
c) Expenses incurred in accessing the internet to access the online material
d) Internet availability in some, if not most, rural areas is problematic. For example, it takes more time to download a document in rural areas, such as Nkhata Bay than in Blantyre, Mzuzu or Lilongwe. Not surprisingly, it is urban folks that have been able to access the online platform.
e) Expenses associated with internet access
We propose that
a) As part of their social responsibility, internet providers should introduce special cheaper-rate vouchers for internet access by students and teachers and government should introduce tax waivers to cushion this potential financial loss on the part of internet providers
b) Macra should ensure that all parts of Malawi receive equally strong internet signals. Malawi government should adopt a policy obliging internet providers to do so.
c) Parents should be advised that times have changed and their children will need their attention as co-teachers.
7. Consult teachers on how to teach during Covid-19 pandemic
Teachers need to adjust their teaching strategies during the Covid-19 pandemic.