Malawi, Blantyre: Louis Zulu, 43, teacher

1) Do people around you take the pandemic seriously and follow the rules given by scientists and/or politicians?
Malawi recorded its first case of COVID-19 on 3rd April 2020. The government rolled out a number of initiatives immediately to avoid rapid spread of the infection through mass civic education on radio, TV, newspapers etc. These messages mainly reached the urban population, leaving behind rural people who do not depend much on electronic media to get news or messages but face to face contact through

street theatre, poems, songs, dances and other traditional means of communication.

Now, some NGOs are reaching out to the rural population through these methods. But there is not much compliance. All known COVID-19 cases in Malawi are from towns and cities. COVID-19 still appears to be a disease of people who can travel outside the country or interact with those have returned recently from outside. We have very few local transmissions.

People in urban areas have got the message but there is not much compliance as expected. For instance, few people put on face masks in the streets or supermarkets and other public places, politicians continue to do public rallies in preparation for presidential elections which will take place on 23rd June. There is no social distance in the public rallies during this campaign. The only visible compliance in towns is washing hands before entering public buildings and demarcations of physical distance in banking halls.

2) If they DO NOT, why? Is it a lack of understanding or education or the dilemma “keep the job (and social life) or get infected”?
On 23rd March after noticing the continued increase in COVID-19, the government wanted to impose strict measures such as total lockdown of the whole country and closure of educational institutions. But citizens violently protested all over the country because:

  • Most people survive on petty jobs earning just enough to buy food provisions for a day. A lockdown of three weeks would have meant people dying of hunger, not COVID-19. The country had very few confirmed cases of COVID-19 as compared to our neighbours.

  • At the time government wanted to lock down the country, COVID-19 cases were only in Blantyre and Lilongwe cities. There was no sense in locking down the whole country.

  • People understand the severity of the pandemic but they wanted the government to put in place some cushion measures for vulnerable families.  

3) Have you observed “side effects” of the crisis: less/more alcohol, less/more violence, less/more …
There are a lot of side effects in Malawi:

  • Personally, this is my third month at home without going to work since schools were closed mid of March. Not being active anymore has caused a monotonous lifestyle of staying at home every day. I remember reading on our office Whatsapp group forum that most of us are gaining body weight. If not checked, we are likely to have a lot of cases of Hypertension and other non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

  • Of course, bars remain open and due to idleness, many young people resort to drinking. But I would like to say this with caution because no research has been done to conclusively say that this is true. 

  • Domestic violence is not well documented in Malawi. So, it is difficult to say that cases are on the rise due to coronavirus. Of course for poor families, closure of schools means children are now part of the workforce to contribute to the income sourcing of their families.

4) What happened to outcasts: refugees, handicapped, homeless?
For refugees from the Great Lakes Region (Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia) life is even tougher because the government has put up checkpoints to limit their movement. There is a myth that it is foreigners and returning Malawians from abroad who are bringing Coronavirus to the country. 

For the disabled persons, life is becoming more difficult because there is a scale down on economic activities all over the country. Businesses are shutting down and it means fewer opportunities for already disadvantaged people like street kids, refugees, women, disabled people etc.

5) Is there any positive role of media and/or schools?
Malawi enjoys media freedom. We have a vibrant media sector. The media is playing a very important role in informing the members of the general public how to control the virus. Hardly a minute passes when watching TV or listening to the radio without hearing prevention measures of COVID-19.

Schools would have been of much help in fighting the pandemic because students would have taken the message to their families. But we closed schools three months ago and we don’t know how our students are coping with the virus. Hopefully, we will survive.

6) Is there any control of restrictions (police, mafia, army …) or do people understand and follow without “big brother”?
Malawi government has only advised people on ways of preventing contracting COVID-19. It is entirely up to the people to comply with what the government has said. There is no enforcement of restrictions by the police and the army as such. I think when the lockdown is imposed that is when we shall see the security officers on the streets enforcing compliance. 

7) How is the school NOW, in the NEXT WEEKS, maybe changings for longer time? Reduction of numbers, classes, lessons?
As already said above, all learning institutions remain closed. The government has launched an online teaching and learning program which is under a lot of criticism because less than 10% of the students in Malawi have access to electronic gadgets, computers, phones and electricity. This is discrimination as the initiative will only benefit those from towns. To solve this problem, the government has started printing teaching and learning materials to be distributed in various districts so that students in rural areas can also access education. 

Because digital technology is not equally available to all students, the pressure is growing from private school owners for government to open schools. Personally, I think it is too early to think of opening schools because the pandemic has not reached its crisis yet in this country. 

The Malawian Corona model is saying that we might reach a peak sometime in July. Until then, the right to education for students remains compromised. 

My assumption is that when we reopen schools, we have to change the way we have been conducting ourselves. We shall need to limit the number of students in a class to observe social distance. To achieve this, we shall reduce the number of lessons in order to accommodate fewer students per class. We still have students in some schools in rural areas learning under trees as their classroom. We shall need to invest immensely in infrastructure development. 

8) Can you identify more things, you want to see in the future “after Corona” or you really don`t want to see again?
More resources to public hospitals so that we are better prepared to handle infections in future. It is very pathetic that nurses and doctors, who are our frontline soldiers in the fight against diseases, should be striking or demonstrating in order to get personal protective equipment (PPE).

More decisive political leadership that is able to make crucial decisions timely so that we can effectively fight the challenges facing our beloved country such as hunger, disease, poverty, joblessness, food insecurity etc.

We need schools to inculcate in our students a culture of responsibility for own safety and health. Perhaps, the curriculum needs to be revised to do this. 

9) What will be the most urgent activity you will do after ALL restrictions are opened?
Secure an extra job so that I can get out of the financial problems that have been created by the Coronavirus. I want to build my own house and get further studies so that I can earn more money for my family.

10) Are there any ideas, plans to push economy?
Reopening businesses is the best way to revamp the economy which is slumbering now. Most Malawians are not formally employed. They depend on small businesses to survive.

Donor aid will also be required in order to resuscitate the economy. 

11) What will be the effect on political systems/politicians/parties/democracy?
Malawians are going for presidential elections next month. We expect the ruling party to lose. If the opposition wins, there will be obviously an overhaul of political and social-economic policies. The opposition is promising lots of goodies and if they win, then probably life will improve. 

The major problem with the current government is corruption, tribalism and executive arrogance plus lack of respect for the rule of law. 

12) What will be the effect on digital instruments, apps?
Malawi is not so much technologically developed. It is estimated that only 10% of the people have electricity in their homes. Even to people with electricity, power is not available 24/7. Even for those people whose houses are connected to the power grid, at the moment, we have about 3 hours of no electricity every day due to inadequate generation of power. All digital instruments depend on electricity to be usable. We long for the day when the country will have “power all day every day”.

On this and through this blog, let me request from those who can share applications that can help us to mitigate the impact of COVID. In particular, I have in mind the application that traces proximity to people who are confirmed to have coronavirus.

13) What will be the effect on “high” culture and on daily culture (cooking, social life and way of living …)?
It appears that some lifestyles will change forever. For example, washing hands regularly with soap or sanitizing hands on a regular basis are likely to be the norm in the aftermath of Coronavirus. 

I am also tempted to believe that social/physical distance will most likely stay with us for long. Corona has made us more cautious of the way we prevent infections and “life will never the same again”

Staying home unless one has a real reason to go out will also become our habit. Even employers have discovered that it is possible to work from home. 

14) Is there any idea to improve prevention/medical systems/hospitals?
Our government has always had plans to improve our health system by among other ways recruiting more nurses and doctors. But IMF and World Bank keep telling us that the government wage bill for the civil service is very big. As a way of conforming to our “donor partners”, we froze the employment of health and teaching personnel whom we desperately need.
During this COVID-19 pandemic and even afterwards, there are plans to employ more service providers so that we can improve the ratio of patients to doctors and nurses for this is one of the reasons our system is poor.

Coronavirus has challenged our politicians to improve our health system because before, they could travel to Europe whenever they were sick to get better medical care. That is why they have neglected the health care system here at home for a long time. But now we are all locked up here. Due to the lockdown, only local health is available to both the rich and the poor.  

15) Any observations concerning more/less racism, nationalism, hate?
There is no observable evidence of racism or hate crime because of Coronavirus in Malawi. But I can remark that generally, people are not happy with the way the government has handled deportees from South Africa to Malawi. Last week, Malawi has welcomed over 800 deportees from South Africa. Before these people started arriving, Malawi had only 82 COVID-19 cases. When the immigrants started arriving, our number increased to 273 because about 200 of them tested positive.
Now Malawians are scared of new arrivals from our neighbouring countries like South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe because these are hot spots of COVID-19 in this region. 

The government is being blamed for not imposing 14 days quarantine for all people coming into the country. Our neighbouring countries are doing it. The theory that is making sense now is that it seems the government of Malawi wants the cases of Corona to increase so much so that the forthcoming presidential elections can be postponed. Remember it is very unlikely that the government will win the elections and they know it. 

16) Last remarks
At the moment, the epicentre of Coronavirus is in Latin America. Europe is opening up now because the worst is gone. For us, it seems the worst is yet to come. Our new infections keep rising. We hope to learn from the experience of China, Europe and Latin America but we seem to be sluggish in our response to COVID-19. 

This blog should help us to learn from each other. I am available to contribute my ideas and experiences of Malawi through this blog.