Is it time to decentralize the COVID-19 fight?

By Angumanga

In my last article on this subject, which you can read by clicking here, was a call for the country to show decisiveness and confidence in its fight against the pandemic. Public reaction to the Malawi Gazette Supplement containing rules and regulations to govern the national fight against covid-19 that the government–through the Minister of Health Khumbize Chiponda­­­–released on August 7 is proof that, as a country, we are yet to formulate a decisive and committed approach to dealing with the disease. The government’s quick reversal of its own directive to restrict all public gatherings to no more than 10 people is further proof of a lack of tangible national plan to manage the pandemic. Instead of putting science and data at the forefront of its directives, the government bowed down to the wishes of churches whose primary interest is nothing but greed: churches did not want to lose out on weekly offerings, tithes, and other money generating activities.

Whether you find this view on churches cynical or not, one thing is for certain; the rationale governing our fight against covid-19 is murky at best. The new rules and regulations the Minister presented feel more like mere guesswork. For instance, what was so special about restricting public gatherings to no more than 10 people? And why does it make sense to now adjust that number to 100 people? In a logic defying move, the Gazette then goes on to say that public service vehicles shall reduce their sitting capacity to sixty per cent. In other words, a minibus that was originally meant to carry 20 people could have as many as 12 people on board yet, in the Gazette’s original formulation, a church that can sit hundreds of people could only have 10 people at a time! In what world does that make sense?! Looking deeper into the Gazette, for some unknown reason, bars are not allowed to have people drink at the premises yet restaurants are only told to ensure that they put in place social distancing measures. Not only that, bars are only allowed to operate for 6 hours a day whereas restaurants can operate for 15 hours! Where is the fairness in all that?

And don’t get me started on the penalties for those who contravene the rules and regulations that are in the Gazette. Who is authorized to collect the K 10,000.00 and K 100,000.00 fines from individuals and entities that violate the rules? How is the money collected supposed to be put to use? Also, is there capacity and commitment to adequately enforce the Gazette? So far it seems like it is only in Chikwawa where law enforcement arrested and fined people who were not wearing masks. It remains to be seen if this type of enforcement will continue and whether all other laws and regulations are likewise going to be enforced. It also remains to be seen if other districts will follow the lead the police force in Chikwawa has set.

A lot of indicators suggest the Gazette the Minister of Health produced last week was just for show. On Wednesday, August 12, 2020, we saw President Lazarus Chakwera lead the nation in breaching his own government’s rules and regulations by going to a funeral that had more than 50 people in attendance. Social distancing and mask wearing were also not followed. What is the point of coming up with laws to which top government officials are not willing to adhere? I thought this was supposed to be Malawi wokomera tonse?

The President was wrong to do what he did. However, that does not mean that the country must give up fighting the disease. We need to be resolute in our fight against covid-19. Most importantly, our fight must be driven by science and statistics. This had me thinking; could a decentralize approach in the fight yield better results?

In the decentralized approach I have in mind, district and city councils would come up with measures for combating the spread of coronavirus within their own localities, based on the severity of the number of cases they are experiencing. This means a district with more cases, say 200, would put in place more stringent measures within its boundaries than a district with only 5 cases. Making this operational would simply require district and city assemblies to enact their own bylaws, as long as the bylaws don’t contravene the Health Ministry’s subsidiary rules. As a way of facilitating this process, the Ministry could come up with a wide-raging list of suggested rules given the severity of cases a district is experiencing. Assemblies could then adopt from the list those rules that make sense for them and make additions if need be.

I believe this approach would be more palatable to the general public as it would be more aligned with the reality on the ground, which is a far cry from the recent Gazette. For five days straight, from August 8 to August 12, the official national statistics on covid-19 showed that the number new recoveries was higher than the number of new cases. Unfortunately, the centralized nature of these reports meant that the public had no clue which districts were seeing improvements nor the ones that were seeing rises in active cases. Switching to a decentralized system would overcome this issue as each district would be producing its own data. If people understand that the number of active cases is increasing within their areas, they are more likely to take personal precautionary measures such as wearing masks in public places and maintaining social distance.

Having a decentralized approach will also allow districts to learn from one another on what works well and what doesn’t. The centralized approach we are using at the moment is shrouding the fact that some districts are doing better than others. Moving to a decentralized system would allow the nation to know which those districts are. The next step for the better performing districts would then be to come up with ways of slowly and cautiously bringing life back to normal by, for instance, reopening schools. Those districts that are not doing too well will then be pushed to keep the virus under control to allow to allow them to get to a stage where they too can open up some.

Slowly getting life back to normal is what our economy needs. Our country is small, and economically disadvantaged. We can’t afford to continue being timid and overly cautious in our approach. Barring the invention of a vaccine, we won’t defeat the pandemic. But we can’t let life come to a standstill until a vaccine is invented. Let’s overcome our fear of the disease by using data and science to manage the pandemic and forge ahead with life the best we can.


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