The Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 has issued instructions to the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) to abolish the essential water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) public programme.
Presidential Taskforce is reportedly justifying the deactivation that it is no longer necessary since the Ministry of Education is now drilling boreholes.
According a statement issued by one of the WaSH programme's stakeholders, WaterAid, the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19's attempts to deactivate the essential WaSH cluster started as far back as March, 2020.
But stakeholders such as WaterAid, with support from Ministry of Health, defended the WaSH initiative -- strongly argued last year that it was necessary as part of the preventive measures towards COVID-19 pandemic.
In its statement, WaterAid continue to argue that the reasoning by the Presidential Taskforce that the WaSH cluster is no longer necessary since the Ministry of Education is now drilling boreholes "reflects very narrow understanding of WaSH in the context of the fight against COVID-19".
"The decision to de-activate the WaSH Cluster in Malawi is to be evaluated against the background that there is a WaSH Cluster for COVID-19 response at the global level," says the statement issued by WaterAid's coordinator for policy & sector engagement, Lloyd Mtalimanja.
"While at the global level it is felt that the battle against COVID-19 cannot be fought without a functional WaSH Cluster, Malawi thinks otherwise -- which is a very worrisome reasoning considering that handwashing is the first line of defence in the fight against the pandemic.
"Malawi is removing the very structure that is coordinating WaSH players to make handwashing possible for everyone and everywhere in Malawi."
Mtalimanja discloses that the Government, in responding to the pandemic, developed the national COVID-19 preparedness & response plan through DODMA -- which is responsible for the overall coordination while the Ministry of Health is the technical lead for implementation of the plan.
The Plan was developed through the cluster systems advanced by the Malawi Government, which saw birth of 13 operational clusters -- health, inter-cluster coordination protection and social support, WaSH and education.
It also included food security and transport and logistics, nutrition, agriculture and shelter and camp management.
Others were later included as ad-hoc clusters -- public communication, economic empowerment and security & enforcement.
These are gazetted in the Disaster Preparedness and Relief Act of 1991 enacted by Parliament to make provision for the coordination and implementation of measures to address the effects of disasters.
Mtalimanja writes that the overall objective of the WaSH cluster program is to ensure that since the most vulnerable affected people have equal and sustained access to safe and appropriate water, sanitation services and hygiene promotion.
"[This] will contribute to the reduction of morbidity and mortality caused by Coronavirus through providing timely, coordinated and appropriate preventive and response WASH services and activities and to strengthen capacity for emergency preparedness and coordination mechanisms in the districts for timely responses."
A source privy to this development, says the fresh communication on the decision to deactivate the WaSH Cluster was made some two weeks back by the Presidential Taskforce to the Ministry of Forestry & Natural Resources when the Ministry was presenting expenditure report on COVID-19 response activities.
The source agreed with WaterAid's stand to oppose the deactivation, saying globally WaSH was rolled out to maintain vulnerable people's healthy well-being in order to avoid contracting communicable diseases.
"Most of the prevention measures for COVID-19 are encompassed in the WaSH initiative and the country needs to maintain this as part of disaster preparedness against any other communicable diseases.
"You can even notice that most of the medical equipment that have been donated by the corporate world and other stakeholder donors shall effectively be used life after COVID-19 -- so the same must be applied for WaSH," said the source.
There was no immediate comment from the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 nor from the Ministry of Health.
Specific objectives of WaSH Cluster include:
providing safe water supply in adequate quantities to affected population in emergency treatment units (ETUs), schools, hospitals, transit centers, and other deprived surrounding vulnerable communities
providing gender responsive sanitation and hygiene facilities in emergency treatment units and other transit centers for Corona affected populations
continued promotion of hand washing with soap in strategic places in collaboration with the communication cluster
ensuring a coordinated WaSH response to the Coronavirus outbreak with other service providers at national, district and sub district levels -- particularly with the health and colleagues to avoid duplication of effort; contradictions and for leveraging of use of resources
ensuring that the Covid response is integrated into existing WaSH programmes
ensuring effective Information management and sharing about the WaSH response to the Corona outbreak
prepositioning adequate health and WaSH supplies to respond to perceived outbreaks of Coronavirus and returnees
increasing access to WaSH especially for highly vulnerable populations and advocacy for WaSH response resourcing.
"The WaSH cluster was targetting a population of 9 million people -- about 50% of the Malawi population in overcrowded places, markets, borders, high case load districts, transit centers, schools, hospitals as well as a case load of 30,000 positive cases with WaSH services for the prevention of the spread of coronavirus outbreak," further writes Mtalimanja
He contends that the risks to Covid-19 to the WaSH cluster include the limited financial resources to respond to the huge number of people who might be affected and the lack of proper and adequate protection of health and other frontline workers involved in promoting WaSH.
"High illiteracy, poverty and naivety that goes with these [are also risks] -- preventing uptake of WaSH related messages. People are still attending gatherings and events beyond the presidential election campaigns."
Another risk is the current huge critical water supply and sanitation needs across the country; the delayed availability of WaSH data on hospitals and schools, which would prevent the quickest planning by partners.
Hygiene promotion may be challenged by the imminent lockdowns and absence of permanent handwashing facilities risks that [has seen] people stopping handwashing practices.
Another risk is the slow adaptation to long held cultural and traditional practices by the populace in activities like weddings and associated rites -- such as funerals, religious functions, and other generally accepted norms of cultural and communal association and interactions.