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Malawians feel hopeless as Covid-19 bites

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KALEKENI—We will have no employment in the private sector

Less than two months after Malawi registered its first three Covid-19 cases, all sectors of the economy are already feeling the pinch of the contagion which has resulted into some of the worst disruptions in recent memory. And, as MATHEWS KASANDA explores in this write-up, while some people are still able to optimally bring food onto their tables, others have been pushed by the novel coronavirus to the edge of survival.

Alexander Banda, a resident of Chirimba Township outside Blantyre Central Business District, owns a photocopy and printing business which used to make enough for his small family of four to have enough food each day.

However, the unanticipated arrival of the coronavirus thrust the business to rock-bottom levels. He has quietly watched people who regularly visited his shop to seek stationary services pass without stopping by to have documents printed or photocopied.

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A business that used to rake up to K20,000 on a good day—and around K400,000 a month—has gradually slumped to its knees.

“I had to start selling some of the equipment such as computers just to make ends meet. With the few that I am remaining with, I open the shop the whole day sometimes without making a tambala,” Banda laments.

To make sure his family has something to eat, he opted for small loans which have accumulated to saddle his life and his consciousness.

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“We are even struggling to pay rentals. That alone is a sign that life is becoming too hard,” Banda explains.

He says his business largely depends on schools which give him materials such as examination papers and other documents to print.

This means that the closure of schools, as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 pandemic, has significantly affected the business and Banda is, obviously, not alone.

The graduate of University of Malawi prays that government will lift some of the restrictions it has imposed on Malawians in fighting the virus.

“If the government can reopen schools as soon as possible, it will do a lot of good to some of us,” Banda says. That is a plea that has been reverberating across the country of late with institutions such as the Independent Schools Association of Malawi also pushing for the reopening of the schools.

At a clothes manufacturing company in the same township, employees who spoke on condition of anonymity to save their jobs, say they are now getting K8,000 per month down from their traditional K32,000.

“We are being tormented. For me, from the K8,000, I use K7,000 to pay my rentals. Now, what can I do with the remaining K1,000?” queries a worker who is married and has four children.

The workers say since the pandemic’s outbreak, the company divided them into groups with one group working for only one week a month.

They have to survive on piece work which is also not always there. When they fail to make a little something for a particular day, it means their families go to bed hungry.

Some of the employees whose regular work mostly involves dealing with books and other documents in the comfort of their offices have now been shoved to ‘demeaning’ piece work like offloading goods from vehicles.

They are tired and hopeless and wonder whether life will ever return to normal even after the pandemic. They are affected psychologically.

“It is a crisis we never anticipated,” says a 38-year-old man, adding that whatever work comes his way, he has to do it for the sake of his family’s survival.

“This disease has taken away our dignity. It has, in another way, taught us about how vulnerable we all are in the face of fate. Even those who are doing well financially still have something bothering them. But things are worse for those of us whose salaries have been significantly cut,” he says.

On the other hand, the worker believes that some employers are just taking advantage of the virus to victimise their workers and suspend their rights.

He gives an example of some minibus owners who have slashed their drivers’ monthly pays even when the drivers are always meeting their targets in terms of how much they are supposed to give their bosses each day.

“They [the minibus owners] argue that the virus has brought several problems such that they cannot pay their drivers what they used to pay them. Yet, the drivers are making money for them,” he says.

Drivers at a cross-border bus company have also confided in us that they only got half of their April salary and nothing for the month of May with no hope of payments in the future.

Meanwhile, Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) has warned that there could be a “catastrophic effect” that the government may not manage if it fails to intervene in the Covid-19 crisis at this stage.

“MCTU is looking at the current development in the private sector as a serious and very critical one that requires immediate attention.

“If we sit and just watch what is happening and allow people to be fired or retrenched, by the end of two or three months, I tell you that we will have no employment in the private sector,” MCTU Secretary-General, Denis Kalekeni, said in an interview.

He also called on the government to set a K10 billion stabilisation fund to cushion the suffering of those who have been heavily hit by the pandemic, especially private-sector institutions that are failing to pay their employees due to loss of business.

“The private sector would be coming to solicit funds from that particular pool and use the funds to support payment of salaries of their workers so that workers are retained in employment,” Kalekeni added.

He further challenged officials that have been entrusted with the handling of resources for the Covid-19 fight to “at least come back to their senses” and responsibly manage the resources to save those who are feeling the impacts of the pandemic.

CAUTIONED EMPLOYERS—Patel

Recently, Minister of Labour, Lilian Patel, warned employers against making unilateral decisions when dealing with the pandemic and its effects.

She said doing that is violating the employees’ rights and is against labour laws.

There are over 5 million Covid-19 cases worldwide with at least 330,000 deaths and over 2 million recoveries.

As of yesterday, close to 2.7 million cases were reportedly in mild conditions while some 45,600 were in critical conditions.

Malawi has so far recorded 72 Covid-19 cases, three deaths and around 30 recoveries.

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