Findings of a Perceptions and Misconceptions of Smallholder Farmers on Covid-19 survey conducted in the Central Region indicate an information gap with the respondents feeling they are not at risk of contracting the disease.
In their instant reactions to the findings, health experts and policymakers in the agriculture sector have expressed worry while admitting that such myths and misconceptions exist; hence, the need for intensified civic education to ensure a smooth fight.
Conducted by Agriculture Policy Research Africa (Apra) in Mchinji and Ntchisi districts, the survey found that those that believe they cannot contract the virus think their diets and hardships make them resilient to survive and keep them away from critical illnesses such as Covid-19.
Reads the survey report: “The rural farmers also attributed their diets, dominated by indigenous vegetables and low use of processed foods like cooking oil, as another reason for their apparent immunity, equating such to herbal vaccinations against diseases.
“They argue that townsfolk eat processed foods that are full of fats ,giving them weaker bodies and no immunity.
“The key informants reported that the rural farming households believe that the coronavirus cannot affect them, as it is only found in hotels, airports, airplanes, and other places frequented by rich and successful people. Consequently, the people are living within their own world of ‘exaggerated’ safety.”
The Health Belief Model (HBM) developed in the early 1950s by social scientists at the United States Public Health Service suggests that a person’s belief in a personal threat of an illness or disease together with their belief in the effectiveness of the recommended health behaviour or action influence the likelihood, their choice of behaviour.
Apra, a six-year research programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) which aims to generate high-quality evidence and policy-relevant insights on more inclusive pathways to agricultural commercialisation, said in the report: “It is, therefore, important that whatever strategies are being put in place by government and other stakeholders to manage the virus, their existence should be taken into account.
“As the Health Belief Model warns, people first have to acknowledge the existence of a serious risk for them to change their health-seeking behaviours. Preventing Covid-19 is crucial, as only physically healthy people can contribute to food and livelihoods security.”
Reacting to the findings in an interview yesterday, public health specialist Bridget Msolomba-Malewezi said she was aware of misconceptions on the pandemic where some people think Covid-19 is for the rich and that it is only in urban settings. She said this calls for intensifying of messaging and communication.
She said people should understand how the virus is spread and that it does not spare anyone, whether in the rural or urban areas.
Msolomba-Malewezi said: “There are a lot of factors involved, that’s why we may not see the numbers high enough in the districts. The testing capacity is limited, but we know that every district has been affected. So, we recognise that there is need for more awareness, especially in rural areas to try and address these gaps.
“People need to know that it’s not about diet or what you eat. In our context, people must understand better than they do now. We have joined forces to try and address these misconceptions because we are seeing that it is not only about understanding the disease itself, but we are seeing misunderstanding around management, and treatment.”
On his part, Society of Medical Doctors in Malawi president Victor Mithi agreed with Malewezi that it was suicidal to conclude that people in rural areas are immune from contracting the virus, especially that there is no data for comparison.
He said: “The rural masses need to have a clear message and the truth of the pandemic. We are talking about proper information dissemination. We need to use chiefs, health personnel, and every channel such as radio and mobile phones to counter all these myths and wrong information going round.
“We also need to make sure that the measures are being followed in the rural areas, and chiefs can set up teams to be monitoring compliance and come up with punitive measures for deviants.”
Mithi also suggested the need to come up with a structure where those showing symptoms of Covid-19 are taken to hospitals at an early stage.
He said this can be done through the village development committees, community health committees and health surveillance assistants.
In an e-mail response, National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (Nasfam) chief executive officer Bettie Chinyamunyamu also said the report underscores the information gap surrounding Covid-19.
She said: “Being a pandemic, a new virus and disease under study, there are information gaps, especially in communities not privy to television, newspapers and radio programmes that are demystifying some of the myths and misconceptions on Covid-19.
“The challenge is also exacerbated by the fact that the preventive measures seem to contravene some cultural norms of socialisation that rural communities normally thrive on i.e. no handshake, no physical contact, limiting group gatherings and the like.”
Chinyamunyamu stressed the need for appropriate awareness programmes and interventions to be implemented in the communities to address these challenges.
She said Nasfam developed radio jingles, radio plays and included behavioural change aspects of handwashing, social distancing and wearing of masks as farmers continue to engage in their day-to-day farming activities.
Paramount Chief Kyungu of Karonga and Chitipa is on record as having said that while they are massively sensitising their people to crowd control issues, it was difficult for many to understand, especially those in rural areas.
He said: “We are telling them to follow protocols on Covid-19 as government has directed but we are dealing with a rural population that is largely ignorant and it is difficult to make them understand, but slowly they are.”
Minister of Civic Education and National Unity Timothy Mtambo said government was aware of such myths, indicating that Lilongwe has put in place several measures to fight the same.
In his national address on Covid-19 on January 31, President Lazarus Chakwera urged the citizenry to comply with all preventive measures to defeat the pandemic.
He said: “But you too, as a citizen, must continue playing your part: Wash your hands, wear your mask, and watch your distance.”
Cumulatively, by Tuesday, Malawi had recorded 24 903 cases, including 726 deaths. Of these cases, 1 960 are imported infections and 22 943 are locally transmitted.