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Covid-19: A Chance for Malawi’s Traditional Governance to Shine

Updated: May 26, 2020

Until now, no one – this website included – has articulated what a localized solution to the Covid-19 pandemic may look like. We have excelled at lashing out slurs at President Mutharika for adopting foreign measures that would not work for a country where a lockdown may work faster to kill the masses than the disease being managed. This website has lashed out at Mr. Mutharika’s Veep, Saulos Chilima, for yapping without offering solutions himself.

All of us are picking on the problems and are offering no alternatives.

It makes sense, then, that this website, knowing that Covid-19 is only one of many pandemics that may hit our impoverished country sooner (again) and later, takes the leap of faith to articulate a plausible menu of solutions that are not only practical for an economy laden with informality, but also affordable for a poor country.

To start, we must invest the time to understand some salient characteristics of Covid-19 that are relevant to national development planning. Most important is that many of the assertions that characterized the behaviour of SARS-Cov-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, such as high vulnerability for the elderly and populations in cooler climates have surmounted to only being mere myths. Even the best scientists are yet to fully grasp its manners.

This means we, poorer nations, are left in dire straits to deal away the socio-economic and environmental impacts of the disease over and above the devastating health outcomes for its patients. The second is in understanding the dimensions Covid-19 takes, namely its systemic (health system impacts), socio-economic (deepening inequalities) and strategic (how public funding will best mete the disease’s spread and requisite treatment). In a Malawian setting, these issues pan out differently than they would in a developed, rich country at the forefront of defining the preventive and treatment measures we dance to today.

We won’t belabour the point that Malawi’s state of development is in no condition to treat Covid-19 patients because of our dire lack of capacity. But we can belabour the point that our best shot is at prevention. The measures we suggest below do not precede the common sense needed to prevent chaotic SARS-Cov-2 spread, but certainly help to give pointers to keep our economy open internally and externally to serve all, particularly the poor and informal workers who live hand-to-mouth every single day.

Malawi’s 3.5 million micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) will only continue to support economic livelihoods if markets stay open. In a Covid-19 environment where the most effective prevention is to socially distance, it’s important to sequence sellers in occupying their stalls in market premises. This not only regulates the number of sellers in a market at a time, but also controls for how buyers will interact with sellers and how they will also brush shoulders in the tiny corridors. With this, it’s easy for municipal authorities to keep the numbers of individuals transacting in markets at healthy levels at all times.

To cater to the needs of informal workers, including household employees, new labour decrees should guide that employers who furlough their workers do so only if they have been affected by the pandemic themselves. This ensures that if an employee is sent home to prevent proximal contact, a steady flow of cash is available to sustain a living for them, and can be redeployed to work at any time at the beck-and-call of their employer. It also sustains the viability of local markets where employees source food and other amenities as sellers maintain a flow of goods and services that are always in demand. The government can then have the capability to investigate cases of unfair dismissal.

Although social distancing measures are mechanically similar regardless of where you live or earn your living, the aforementioned labour and goods markets are more characteristic of urban and peri-urban locations. However, 80% of Malawians live in rural, remote areas where daily subsistence doesn’t have to hugely depend on interactions with more urban and peri-urban economies. They sustain their socio-economic lives in what are called territorial market systems, which usually will thrive via localized social networks and communal economic ties. Where territorial markets source from urban markets, they can still survive for days, if not weeks without sourcing goods and services. Government, then, through the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development (MLGRD), should strengthen and protect territorial markets during the pandemic to help smaller economic systems as these to support the economic lifelines of rural locations.

Agriculture employs the bulk of Malawi’s 5.4 million informal workers. Of the measures that Mr. Mutharika announced in April, little change would happen in the sector beyond charging ADMARC with purchasing from farmers who would want to sell their produce. Yet, the President knows only too well that farmers with a surplus are a segment of the population our country is in short supply of. So, in instituting his measures, he should have used the experience of food-related humanitarian assistance in Malawi, where it’s much cheaper to feed people than to allocate expensive farm inputs in the hands of the incapacitated. Part of his response, then, should have involved a large logistical network to distribute food to pockets that will be compromised by the lockdown.

The pandemic presents an important opportunity to make other changes in agriculture that will help fight future pandemics similar in magnitude of impact as Covid-19. The sector has needed some updates for a long time, which have been mainly held back because of popular politics. In replacing the Farm Input Subsidy Program, the government must seek to structurally transform the sector in order to ensure not just adequate supply of grains but also their affordability. These two factors will prove critical for a poor government to meet the needs of millions who are impacted by the economic fallout brought by Covid-19 measures. We see three things: the first is to subsidize fertilizer, which will increase per capita usage, aid those smallholders who can afford to farm and incentivize large-scale grain farmers whose inventories cushion the pain of emergency buying for redistribution.

It was very thoughtful of Mr. Mutharika’s government to subsidize fuel expenditures by controlling the prices of petroleum products simultaneously with the rule to reduce the load in public transportation. Although its effects are yet to be felt, the gesture suggests flexibility to meet the poor somewhere in the middle. But reduced transportation costs, especially for urban and peri-urban commuters, is not enough. This website believes that partially or fully subsidizing water expenses for populations whose livelihoods are most likely to be impacted by social distancing and reduced mobility would go a long way to ease the burden of accessing water, while enhancing the sanitary measures that all people must adhere to for prevention.

To deliver on all this, government needs a sophisticated coordination machine. Luckily, we already have such a mechanism in the form of our traditional governance system. Chiefs are one layer of governance Malawians – educated or not – have struggled to do away with. Although their influence is undeniably waning, there is credit to the system in terms of its continued relevance to various communal needs. So, equipping chiefs with the wherewithal to mobilize, communicate and direct assistance to those in need would not only be cheap but effective.

Chiefs could regulate delivery of services and efficiency of the response mechanism across almost all the localized solutions we suggest in this article. They could even police malpractices and use very localized means to control for them, where they can, but also be taken seriously by law enforcement to act when the menace supersedes their powers. Local leaders can spread messages more efficiently and perhaps stand the chance to be heard as their communities hold them in some high esteem while wielding the power to regulate local and territorial markets. Under the right conditions, they should be able to encourage their communities to get tested and follow the designated health practices.

If we ever reach a time when testing equipment is more readily available, or in the lucky chance a vaccine can be deployed, traditional governments can facilitate the successful deployment of assistance. This website reckons that if there was one way Mr. Mutharika’s additional 2,000 additional health workers would have outperformed Covid-19, tying the work of the 71 workers per district to such a traditional outfit would be ingenious. It beats his proclamations of prolonging cash cows as the Emergency Cash Transfer or his Mtukula Pakhomo Programs a money drain that risks not ever being effective beyond buying of votes of the 172,000 people receiving MK35,000 apiece for six months.

Information flows better in communities owing to our close-knit societies. Who is better placed to know the goings on of village folk than traditional leaders?




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