In January, Malawians felt hard done when Covid-19 claimed the lives of two Cabinet ministers—Mohammed Sidik Mia and Lingson Belekanyama—in a day.
The sting of death went deep in Chikwawa, Mia’s home and stronghold where many hailed him as the Shire Valley’s political heavyweight.
However, what President Lazarus Chakwera termed the darkest day left some rural dwellers thinking the pandemic only strikes the rich and the famous.
They were wrong—very wrong.
Malawians around Mikolongo Primary School, forked midway between Thabwa and Dyeratu Trading Centre in the district, learned that the virus knows no geography when learning stopped for two days after three teachers and one learner tested positive.
“Mikolongo was the worst hit in my zone,” says Felix Nkundura, primary educational adviser for 15 schools in Chikonde area. “There were two more confirmed cases: one at Dzimbiri and another at Nkundura. Clearly, neither our homes nor schools are exempted from the pandemic.”
The Covid-19 attacks among teachers and one’s son disrupted teaching and learning at the roadside school with about 1 800 leaners, 34 teachers and three staff houses.
The children now learn in three shifts, wash hands when entering classes, wear masks all day and sit far apart to prevent the virus which spreads fast in crowds.
Nkundura states: “The worst hit school is located along the M1, the country’s busiest road, and all teachers, except three, live at Dyeratu, a busy market where crowds interact and do business as if the pandemic is over.
“We need to find a way to safeguard teachers, learners and everyone from the virus, which keeps disrupting schooling as it spreads.”
On Friday, Amref Health trained about 200 teachers in Chikwawa on how to keep schools safe amid the third wave.
The public health think-tank’s Covid-19 response is underway in six districts—Chikwawa, Mangochi, Machinga, Zomba, Ntchisi and Chitipa—with financial support from the Global Affairs Canada.
“We are working with local communities, government departments and other partners to flatten the curve of Covid-19 transmission by increasing awareness, sanitation and hygiene in communities and schools.
“We have supported some communities with handwashing facilities and information. However, we have realised that at the start, most intervention firmly focused on communities, sidelining teachers yet students spend most of their time in school where the risk of Covid-19 spread is high.”
Matchado urged teachers to get vaccinated to protect themselves, learners, families and neighbours. However, random interviews show that most teachers in Chikwawa did not know where and how to receive the AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson jabs available nationwide.
Others could not tell where they would likely go to get a swab test if stricken by Covid-19 symptoms.
“Some of us might have fallen sick and recovered without knowing we had coronavirus,” said one.
The teachers find the trainings, especially the dos and don’ts, vital to stop the virus that forced the government to close school for half a year in the first wave and six weeks in the second wave.
“Many Malawians don’t fully understand the virus though we are pretty familiar with how it spreads and can be prevented. The continued spread shows that more needs to achieve zero Covid-19 infections in schools,” says Chrissie Chinsale, district director of education and youth.
The low-lying district has been taken unawares by the raging wave.
“We did not record any Covid-19 attack among teachers in the first and second waves, but the current one has attacked 18 whom we know. Every time a teacher is affected, others fear to teach and parents become wary to send children to school,” Chinsale states.
The tricky thing with the disease is that young people, who face a lower risk of being bedridden or dying, seldom show symptoms though they carry the virus.
This makes them potential carriers and super-spreaders of the virus, one of the reasons teachers in Malawi kicked off their work in the Covid-19 era with strikes and demands for risk allowance. The government has resisted these demands.
However, Chinsale says knowing the public health foe at hand is the first step towards making a teacher’s workplace safe for everyone.
“We need to strictly observe prevention measures to break the transmission chain of the pandemic. We must put into practice the emerging knowledge we have when it comes to preventing the virus,” she tells teachers.