Hon. Folks, government’s plan to reopen schools has hit a snag after teachers resolved not to resume classes until the good chaps at Capital Hill meet some of their demands, including but not limited to getting a Covid-19 risk allowance.
That the teachers have resorted to going on strike, just when schools were supposed to reopen after a five-week break is a testament to their disillusionment with the way government has treated them.
The request to have Covid-19 allowances dates back to last year when the first wave of the pandemic was in full force. That request fell on deaf years. Apparently, some sections of the public felt that the teacher’s demands were unreasonable.
At the time, some folks went as far as to argue that the teachers did not deserve an allowance because they are already paid a salary and the request for a Covid-19 allowance would put a strain on government finances.
Needless to say, there are some today, including in the high echelons of government who still feel that way. But there are some obvious and glaring flaws with this line of argument, regardless of how fair it may seem at face value.
To begin with, it will be fair to decline the teacher’s request to a risk allowance because they are paid a salary when their similarly salaried counterparts, some of whom are paid more, are getting risk allowances.
Second, if recent developments in the management of Covid-19 funds are anything to go by, the good chaps at Capital Hill have the money to spend. Malawians know some unprincipled government officials were getting sitting allowances just for attending meetings to decide how to spend their allocations.
The layman thinks if an official can get a Covid-19 allowance can get a Covid-related allowance for doing his job, and in a confined and secluded place if we might add, then a teacher should definitely get one for working in a crowded and usually congested classroom.
One would think that the Covid-19 risk allowance was created for people, who by virtue of their line of work, have to interact with large groups of people for extended periods. Prison warders, police officers and health workers fall in this category and are entitled to a risk allowance.
Even electoral officers were granted special protection during the elections period because they had to deal with groups of people at polling stations.
It has to be noted that the risk might even be higher for teachers as they will have to work with students from different localities in confined spaces. Most of these students will be underage and probably not capable of protecting themselves from infection.
So, why then, is the government flinching when the teachers are asking for a risk allowance? Are the folks at Capital Hill making a collective decision that the teacher will not be subjected to risk when they return to teach?
Or is the life of a teacher less than that of a prison warder, police officer or health worker; hence, does not need to be protected from risk?
It is also ridiculous to think that everyone will demand a risk allowance if teachers get one when it has already been established that the privilege is reserved for people whose work involves interacting with large groups of people on a daily basis.
There is need to appreciate that the teachers do not have the flexibility to protect themselves in a way that people in other professions can. Teachers have to be physically present every day to teach students, thanks to Malawi’s astonishing lack of investment in online learning technologies and facilities.
If the teachers’ inescapable proximity to students, who may or may not have carried Covid-19 into the classroom on a daily basis does not qualify them for a risk allowance, I do not know what will.
Actually, the layman is perplexed that Government has resolved this issue until now. It had five weeks to prepare for reopening of schools, but somehow it failed to factor in the teacher’s demands.
That apparent lack of foresight from the same Government that initially included teachers on the list of priority populations targeted for Covid-19 vaccine is shocking.
So, teachers are at a risk to warrant priority status in Covid-19 immunisation campaign, but not high risk enough to merit an allowance? Where is the line here? The layman can only hope that the President’s meeting with the teacher’s union will deliver a fair result for both parties.