The Bad Side of Mutharika’s COVID-19 Response

The Bad Side of Mutharika’s COVID-19 Response

The Saturday COVID-19 response plan speech that earned President Peter Mutharika rare applause among friends and foes may not be as perfect as many assumed. In this Monday entry, columnist Mallick Mnela rants about the conspicuous lack of measures to cushion the poorest of the poor against the COVID-19. Arguing that the majority of measures are elitist, he punches holes in a response that targets those with soap, hand sanitizer and face masks with more measures to protect their livelihoods. He wonders why the President’s response against the COVID-19 leaves 90 percent of the population without access to soap and clean water with little protection, vulnerable and susceptible to the imminent danger posed by the COVID-19. How will the tax waivers, bank liquidity, increased resources for MEDEF loans and accessibility to ADMARC produce markets immediately benefit an average Malawian living in poverty in the face of the COVID-19?

On Saturday, President Peter Mutharika made an address highlighting government’s master plan to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a speech that most people on social media described as one of President Mutharika’s best, the Malawi leader surely inspired hope to the urban elites and those in white and blue collar employment.

APM: His address was good but elitist
APM: His address was good but elitist

Naturally, the biases of belonging to the working class made many on social media assume  the speech was powerful. But upon closer look, one would note that several issues were left out when they should have been prioritised.

Reading the above average and overall impressive address several times, one would see that the COVID-19 response President Mutharika is championing mostly identifies with the elite or those who are direct beneficiaries of their capitalistic ventures such as banks, businesses with relationships with banks or companies benefitting from the implemented tax waivers.

President Mutharika’s speech was reassuring to employers and employees in trade and industry.

Get me right. The speech surely inspired those in professional employment and low-income jobs. But the bad side of the speech is that it neglected the poor, such as my mother or my aunts in Dedza.

The address also failed to tackle issues that directly affect hundreds, perhaps thousands of workers who have already lost their jobs like those in the fields such as the hospitality Industry due to the COVID-19.

Without a doubt, he did well to inspire hope to healthcare workers.

But let’s not get carried away. These people have toiled to keep the health sector in motion yet they could not benefit from gainful employment despite the huge vacancy rates in the civil service before the COVID-19 arrived on our shores.

The bad side of this intervention is that it seems to have been out of duress than out of necessity. The necessity to fill up the vacancies should have been fulfilled much earlier. Obviously, the intention to intervene now would, obviously and rightly so, be fear for the disaster COVID-19 may unleash on a burdened healthcare system.

By failing to make the response pro-poor, overall, (let alone his idea of communicating in a language a fraction of the population comprehends!), the Malawi leader made an impressive speech that targeted a fraction of the population.

I have no doubt in my mind that the speech has exposed a bias towards the capitalists, neglecting a majority poor.

Other than targeting the banked, those with adequate surety (and, allegedly, connections and political links) to access the loans and those who are yet to lose jobs, what interventions have been designed for the poor fellows?

We are aware that a more direct intervention such as direct social cash transfer payments intended to provide immediate help to rural dwellers can go a long way in building their ability to prevent Coronavirus infection.

For example, COVID-19 requires hygiene. To access hygiene, people require soap which is accessed by about 9 percent of the population as it is!

Imagine the consequences of having a disease that requires basic hygiene devices in a population this deprived.

As indicated earlier, for some reason, the President also overlooked the fact that some workers had lost their jobs.

Others have had their hours cut back as economic activity contracts (maganyu) have dwindled due to social distancing measures being enforced.

The President also ommitted to mention the unauthorized and informal workers, like street vendors, caregivers, or construction workers.

These have been told to go home in pursuit of COVID-19 containment measures by local government authorities.

These are his people and that’s how they make ends meet. They surely should feel dejected to be left out.

Of course, there are instances where the rural dwellers have been directly considered. A good example is the order for increasing resources to ADMARC. This will obviously allow some rural farmers with agri-produce to sell.

But before we celebrate, we should be aware that a majority of rural farmers are subsistence farmers who can barely produce enough for themselves.

Instead, middlemen and the more commercially stable farmers are the ones that usually benefit from ADMARC produce markets than the typical villager.

And to be fair, this is a transactional arrangement which doesn’t appear to fit in the category of a social security intervention in the face of the COVID-19.

I dare say again: the rest of the measures are elitist – targeting corporations, banks and the banked population. There is very little to benefit, at least directly, a villager in Nthalire, Kanyama, Chatoloma or Mbaluku.

Going forward, long-term and targeted support would go a long way in bolstering the country’s response against the COVID-19.

There is no question about it – sluggish and socially biased delivery of crucial social assistance to the rural masses by assuming they are not in immediate danger of the COVID-19 is fallacious and a failure to equitably redistribute resources in a time of crisis.

President Mutharika is on the right path. Surely, we cannot ask for anything given out as the COVID-19 stimulus for Trade and Industry to be returned. The measures are timely and welcome.

But the lack of interventions to empower the rural masses to withstand the shocks and, most importantly, be able to prevent themselves against the disease is regrettable.

As it is, the country’s underprivileged citizens – the rural dwellers, those in informal employment and those in peri-urban areas – are at a higher risk of slipping into destitution in the wake of the COVID-19.

If, God forbid, the economic woes for workers and companies, small and large, are not properly addressed, we are likely going to see a wave of migration back to the villages whose inhabitants are ignored now.

This will, in addition to the destitution cited above, potentially trigger importation of the disease to the villages. We can also add the political risks of this approach.

Are the resources adequate for all?

I also dare say – if, and should the COVID-19 continue to pose a risk to those struggling to make a living in urban centres – God forbid- thousands will flee to their villages!

Once this happens, efforts to limit the curve will be frustrated more and more, placing the country in a worsened, precarious position.

With more people migrating to the village, the best case scenario is that the cost of health care will increase. The worst case scenario is that many will die as the already under-resourced healthcare system will come down crushing.

The government should, therefore, act swiftly in designing appropriate pro-poor COVID-19 response measures targeting those in urban and rural areas. Such responses should build their resilience against the disease.

Over 90 people out of 100 do not have the means to wash hands with soap in Malawi.

It therefore sounds misplaced to allocate billions of Kwacha to preach hand washing with soap to an unimpowered population without access to portable water and with the slightest clue of why they should spend on soap to clean hands with no food to eat.

Perhaps the “wash hands” message is more meaningful to the less than 10 percent that can also afford soap, hand sanitizer, face masks and health supplements such as multivitamins.

If President Mutharika’s COVID-19 response is to be critiqued soberly, I am sure many would find lack of an equitable approach as the major weakness.

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