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Covid risk allowances: Is that the bigger fight?

AT HIGH RISK—Healthcare workers

OUT OF SCHOOL—Learners bear the strike’s brunt

The new virulent strain of Covid which has been spreading rapidly through southern African countries, stretching health systems, especially those in resource-constrained settings like Malawi, to the brink of collapse, is showing elements of ebbing away.

The past few days, statistics released by the Presidential Taskforce on Covid show remarkable declines. However, in outbreaks of this nature—with high possibilities of viruses metamorphosing into worse strains—there should be no room to rest on our laurels.

We are dealing with a highly contagious virus which is also compelling us to abandon traditional ways of living our lives. We are at war and we must continue fighting.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) keeps urging global citizens not to drop their guard even when projections in some countries point towards a downward curve of the outbreak.

WHO is also pushing for everyone to access vaccines that are being administered in territories across the world. Apparently, the jabs are proving efficient in preventing serious sickness and hospitalisations.

With the first vaccination programme having started in December last year, hundreds of millions of people globally have received the inoculations, with those at a higher risk of contracting and, or dying from the virus getting prioritised.

“WHO is working with partners around the world to help coordinate key steps in this process, including to facilitate equitable access to safe and effective Covid vaccines for the billions of people who will need them,” the UN health agency says on its website.

In Malawi, vaccines are expected to start being administered to healthcare workers—who are evidently at high risk of contracting the new Covid strain—before they are rolled out to other sections of the population.

The Ministry of Education also announced that teachers will be prioritised when the vaccine finally arrives in the country. Such a position was arrived at following the teachers’ insistence that they are at-risk government workers who should be given risk allowances just like healthcare workers who handle Covid patients and others.

Are teachers are risk?

The teachers are staying away from class in a bid to force their employer, the government, to give them the so-called risk allowances. It is by virtue of their profession that they advance the demand, not other conditions such as old age or having underlying conditions.

They argue that they are at risk of contracting the deadly virus just like others. But perhaps the bigger question should linger around the level of risk that they face as they go about their work.

When rejecting teachers’ demand for risk allowances, the Ministry of Education indicated that it had made an assessment of their working conditions in consultation with health experts who analyse the spread of diseases and found that the risk that teachers are exposed to is moderate.

That is the conclusion by scientists, apparently.

Healthcare workers across the world are said to be at red-alert risk because they directly handle patients in isolation centres and hospital wards. They deserve priority in getting both the inoculation and the risk allowances.

In her announcement in Parliament that government would not bow to teachers’ demands for allowances, Minister of Education Agnes NyaLonje added that it was beyond labour policies and that the presidential taskforce was engaged to provide guidance.

In its statement on classification on occupational risk to Covid, the Ministry of Labour says healthcare workers have very high risk exposure to the virus due to their potential contacts with known or suspected cases during specific medical, postmortem or laboratory procedures.

“Occupations that require frequent and/or close contact with (within two metres) people who may be infected with Covid but who are not known or suspected Covid patients [are in medium exposure risk].

“They may have contact with the general public through their occupation such as in schools, point of entry personnel, public transport, high volume retail shops, markets and security institutions,” the statement says.

So, with teachers categorised to be among those with medium exposure risk, why should they be prioritised when it comes to getting the Covid vaccine?

It is clear that NyaLonje’s statement was an arranged antithesis of the justification for the risk allowances. Since both sides seem not to reach a balanced point regarding the demands, it would only appear necessary that an option deemed easier to solve the problem should be explored.

So, government says teachers are not in the category of workers at high risk of contracting the contagion. Teachers insist they are and should therefore be given allowances. Then government says: “Since you insist, then the only way to make you have that feeling of being safer is by giving you that inoculation.”

Bigger fight ignored

Some teachers we have talked to are of the view that their mother body, the Teachers Union of Malawi (Tum), is dangerously ignoring the bigger fight.

In some messages sent to the author of this piece after his views on the risk allowance matter infuriated some individuals, several teachers posited that instead of fighting for risk allowances, which are transitory and risk becoming irrelevant the moment the Covid curve flattens, Tum should push for better salaries.

“It is disturbing that some of our colleagues are pushing for allowances which can be phased out any time. Should we not be fighting for promotions and salary increments? The truth about this stay-away which many teachers cannot see is that the current Tum leadership has not done enough to address major problems teachers face such as promotions.

“I, for example, have been on Grade L for 15 years and I self-upgraded but I am still on Grade L. Now, there was a group of teachers that started pushing for promotions on their own without the help of Tum and they have been assured that in March, there will be vacancies,” reads one message sent to the author by a concerned teacher.

Apparently, according to other teachers who have voiced their concerns on the risk allowance saga, it does not make sense for Tum to sanction a stay-away simply because of risk allowances.

“I don’t see why we should cry for risk allowance up to the point of staying away from class when we should actually be pushing for salary increments. We can’t survive without plunging ourselves into debts and the whole Tum is pushing for risk allowances instead of salary increment?” wrote another teacher.

Whither teachers’ grievances?

Continuous engagement on the matter is necessary. Teachers must get a clear and larger picture of their fight and weigh whether they can push for something bigger and better.

Otherwise, on the issue of exposure to risk, there are those who believe the preventive measures that are being repeatedly announced must be adhered to by everyone including teachers.

Schools are not reopening with the same status before the pandemic first struck our nation. There are preventive measures unique to these institutions which are meant to further reduce the risk of Covid among learners and teachers.

The preventive measures were arrived at after proper assessments of the environment where the teaching and learning process will be taking place.

Of course, there will obviously be some problems as should be expected in any moment of crisis. Such challenges should be springboards for improvements in containing the virus in places where people gather.

In the meantime, for every demand and request in relation Covid, and where necessary, science should be allowed to lead.

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