The Government of Malawi in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are currently working to enhance water, sanitation and hygiene practices for COVID-19 awareness and prevention among farming communities. They are facilitating this through provision of handwashing buckets, soaps and information materials to rural farming communities. The items are valued at $950,000 and are being funded by the European Union (EU).

“With the distribution of inputs such as buckets and soaps for handwashing coupled with additional information materials to enhance personal protection, it is expected that households adopt better preventive behaviour and can continue engaging with food production and nutrition activities,” said Luis Amaya Ortiz, Head of Project Coordination at FAO.

Following rapid development of the pandemic in December 2020, Malawi has since been overwhelmed by a second wave of COVID-19. An increase in confirmed cases and related deaths due to the pandemic led the government to reinstitute measures such as restrictions to movement, mass gatherings and a six-week school closure period.

In this context, availability of hand washing supplies and increased awareness of COVID-19 and its consequences to human health remain important for preventing spread of the disease and for promoting safe behaviours among communities not only in urban, but also in rural areas. These are also critical to reinforce behavioural change communication and continuity of activities being implemented under the EU-funded KULIMA and Afikepo programmes, which are aimed at improving agricultural productivity and ultimately, food and nutrition security.

KULIMA and Afikepo are being implemented through outreach platforms of Farmer Field Schools (FFS) and care groups, where activities involve extensive group interactions. Measures have been implemented to reduce numbers in routine meetings and field activities following government protocols as well as emphasizing physical distancing and use of masks. Rebecca Phiri, a community based facilitator for Alinafe FFS in Kasungu district, confirms however that lack of handwashing facilities for group activities has been a challenge.

“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our groups used to meet regularly, but since the coming of this disease and the knowledge we gained about the disease, things changed. Being able to protect ourselves was difficult especially once away from home. The idea of getting together in groups without protective equipment has been frightening,” she said confirming that the buckets and soaps will make a difference.

For farmers such as Rebecca, the rain-fed season is the time when agricultural and field learning activities are intensified. Fear of risks associated with physical meetings without adequate protection pose a setback to farmer learning within her farmer field school.

Maria Kambulo a care promoter in Nkhotakota district says that she was in same predicament and that having dedicated handwashing material will help with reducing risk of transmission during meetings. She voluntarily supports two care groups, each with ten cluster leaders who themselves voluntarily support eight to ten households with nutrition and related issues.

“The posters and leaflets, in our own language, will help us to continue raising awareness of the pandemic to households, just as the leaflets will be useful for awareness of community members who may not have heard about it yet,” she said.

The provisions include 52,951 handwashing buckets to care group volunteers and 1,000 units for farmer field schools, 799,820 bars of soap for hand washing and 52,000 posters and 470,000 leaflets. Overall, the initiative aims to improve awareness of COVID-19 and contribute to prevention of transmission for 578,455 households in the 14 districts of Chitipa, Karonga, Mzimba, Nkhatabay, Kasungu, Nkhotakota, Salima, Chiradzulu, Thyolo, Mulanje, Phalombe, Zomba, Neno and Blantyre rural.

This distribution is part of the ongoing efforts that project partners have carried out since July 2020 under the National COVID-19 Response Plan launched by the Government. Previous efforts include awareness drives using road shows, community radio stations, and orientation sessions about the pandemic.

According to the Public Health Institute of Malawi, the first cases of COVID-19 in Malawi were initially confirmed in April 2020. To date, Malawi has conducted 209,096 tests for COVID-19, and has had recorded 32,894 confirmed cases and 1,088 deaths. The country received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX facility, 360,000 doses, on 5 March 2020.