Government closes campuses amid COVID’s second wave

Malawi universities and colleges have been closed for three weeks, following a second wave of COVID-19 that has taken a heavy toll, with daily reports of increasing infections and deaths.

This includes two cabinet ministers who died earlier this month – Transport and Public Works Minister Sidik Mia and Local Government Minister Lingson Belekanyama.

The pandemic has also been ripping through universities and colleges that were reopened in September after being closed under a national lockdown since COVID-19 hit the country last March.

Mzuzu University, in northern Malawi, is one institution that has taken a major hit, with two forest faculty teachers dying from the disease, senior lecturer Dominic Gondwe and Professor Chimuleke Munthali.

Imposing the closure, which also covers secondary education, from 18 January, Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera has also ordered that students, lecturers and staff, along with other Malawi citizens, wear masks, practise regular hand-washing and maintain social distancing, saying these guidelines will be enforced.

“The time has come to enforce these things for the common good,” said the president.

He added that students living in residences “will remain in their respective campuses until health authorities have assessed the severity of infection in those institutions to determine whether it is safe for those students to go home”.

Concern over ‘blanket ban’

The decision has been welcomed by organisations such as the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, which has been calling on the government to close academic institutions because of surging infections and deaths from Malawi’s ongoing second wave of COVID-19 infections.

On 20 January, Malawi’s total number of officially reported infections was 14,851 and 353 deaths.

However, some education activists are concerned that this closure might end up being extended, as was last year’s six-month lockdown.

According to Malawi education expert Dr Steve Sharra, the president should have avoided a ‘blanket ban’ and rather imposed a threat-based threshold system, closing institutions with particularly severe COVID-19 caseloads while allowing others to stay open.

“This should guide a decision on keeping academic institutions open or closing them at school, cluster, district or national level. That way, you use the available evidence to guide decision-making,” said Sharra.

Dr Titus Divala, from the University of Malawi College of Medicine, was also concerned about the ban: “In the last wave, we closed schools but failed to regulate all other aspects of control. It feels like an injustice to our students for no net public health benefit,” he explained.

He suggested that COVID-19 committees established in each campus should administer prevention actions, access to treatment, and help deal with deaths.

“Prevention will mean: physical distancing; limiting traffic on campus, where possible; pushing as much work online as possible; appropriate mask-wearing; mandatory hand-washing on entry and exit of each building; surveillance and testing on a regular basis; stratifying students as much as possible; and limiting inter-strata mixing,” he said.

Study packages to be prepared

Malawi Civil Society Education Coalition Executive Director Benedicto Kondowe said there was a need for thorough consultation, following reports that some institutions had sent boarding students home, contrary to presidential instructions.

He told Malawi newspapers: “They have not explained clearly what would happen after the assessment of boarding students. What will be happening to the students remaining on school campuses? Will they be learning? What about day scholars and what will the teachers be doing?”

Mzuzu University has, for instance, halted all teaching and library services but allowed information communication technology students currently writing end of semester exams to continue studies to 22 January.

“International students and students in isolation and in quarantine halls of residence will continue to be monitored on campus. The district health office has been engaged to advise on the safety of on-campus students returning home at the earliest time possible,” said Mzuzu University Registrar Yonamu Ngwira.

He added that, for the time being, almost all university staff meetings will be undertaken via Zoom, save exceptional and unavoidable face-to-face interactions.

“Such face-to-face meetings would be held under strict observance of COVID-19 prevention protocols,” said Ngwira.

Meanwhile Sharra has proposed that teaching staff need to prepare study packages that would guide students to study at home during the closure period, while urging higher education institutions to consider scaling up distance and online learning and teaching.

“This needs to be continuously improved upon to make it easy to switch to remote learning at short notice. It will also enable institutions to expand their enrolment,” argued Sharra.