Reopening of universities deferred as COVID-19 cases mount

Malawi’s higher education sector will not reopen this week despite earlier government recommendations that the country’s COVID-19 lockdown, in place since March 23, be lifted. The country is facing spiralling infection rates and death rates from the coronavirus.

By 30 June, the country had registered 1,224 cases with 14 deaths and 260 recoveries; by 7 July the number of infections was 1,942, and included 25 deaths.

There had been euphoria when a national taskforce on universities and colleges agreed with a presidential taskforce on COVID-19 recommendation to set 13 July as a possible date for reopening.

However, the principal secretary in the Ministry of Education, Justin Saudi, confirmed that universities, colleges and schools would remain shut and a new date for reopening would follow “after a careful analysis of the status of the pandemic”.

“All other communications confirming 13th July, 2020, [as the reopening date] without prior approval from government should be disregarded forthwith,” read his statement.

Pushback from health officials

The decision to keep institutions closed follows pushback from health officials. In a letter dated 6 July, written to Dr John Phuka, co-chairperson of the presidential taskforce on COVID-19, Dr Charles Mwansambo, chief of health services at the ministry of health, advised the government not to reopen schools, colleges and universities because of the risks involved.

The decision, he said, should be “guided by a risk-based approach to maximise the education and health benefits for students, teachers, staff and wider community, and help prevent SARS-CoV-2 in the community”. Opening institutions now was risky, because of the “significant local spread and the exponential rise in SARS-CoV-2 cases”.

As a result of the surge in cases, newly elected Malawi President Reverend Dr Lazarus Chakwera cancelled grand Independence Day celebrations due to take place on 6 July. These would have included his inauguration. Instead, the ceremony took place at the Kamuzu Army Barracks in the capital Lilongwe, with 100 invited guests in attendance.

Rapid spread

“We need to accept that the pandemic is with us and spreading. We also need to realise that it is spreading fast. It has reached all parts of the country from the northern district of Chitipa to the southern district of Nsanje,” said the new president.

“We cannot simply bury the issue or sweep it under carpet. We are all under threat – this disease can affect everyone: the young or old. It also does not care about the status of an individual. Even I personally or the vice-president can be infected,” said Chakwera.

His observations come as Malawi universities and colleges struggle with dwindling revenues from student fees. The situation has caused financial hardship for institutions and staff have been laid off.

But reopening the sector also comes with obvious risk.

Lloyd Kambwiri, registrar of Kamuzu College of Nursing, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, has said that once colleges and universities reopen, social distancing and protective equipment rules need to be reviewed. His institution has two campuses – in Lilongwe and the country’s second city Blantyre – and contingency plans are needed should a reopening lead to a surge in cases.

Complex dynamics

“The dynamics of campuses are very complex. If cases begin to appear and it is decided not to close the campus, what measures will be put in place?” he asked. “How far do you trace those who have been in contact with a suspected COVID-19 patient?”

Of special concern for the government is that during July Malawi experiences cooler temperatures (average lows are around 8 degrees centigrade), which health professionals fear could help the coronavirus to thrive.

There is also resistance from parents of students and school pupils.

A parent and guardian group called the Children Owners’ Association of Malawi vigorously challenged the proposed date of 13 July for reopening schools and tertiary institutions, arguing in statements that a healthy life was paramount and should always be put before other rights, such as the need for education.

Pointing to the havoc caused by the virus elsewhere, the organisation said it would not watch children being exposed to unnecessary risks, even though COVID-19 is less harmful for younger people than the old.

“Therefore, it is very important to make sure that this right to life is protected by all means,” said the group which also threatened to take legal action against any private school that reopened independently. “The school which will operate on that particular day will face us in the court of law because it will be like killing our own, which is contrary to the right to life,” the statement read.

Student expectations

Regardless, John Gonapamuhanya Gondwe, a student union president at Mzuzu University, said once universities and colleges reopen in the post COVID-19 era, government and educational authorities will need to review operational policies: “We have lots of expectations in the student community,” he said.

Noting how the disease has underlined the need for good health, he called on the new government to review student financing. Students paying fees that are a heavy burden for poorer families have been struggling to afford regular healthy meals while living and studying on campus. “Such students need support in the form of student loans,” he said.

This was especially important to ensure that bright students from disadvantaged families not only entered college and university, but completed their courses, he said.

Gondwe said the government should also consider supplying financial assistance to students pursuing studies through open distance learning programmes.

“There is perception out there that students pursuing open distance learning programmes are employed. The government needs to know that there are some who are not employed. They also [need] student loan support,” he said.

President Chakwera has said his administration will boost university spaces by constructing a new Mzuzu University campus and will complete the construction of a new Mombera University in the northern region of Mzimba.