Advocates for education and health care in Malawi are criticizing the government’s decision to close schools in two cities to try to contain a cholera outbreak.
The Presidential Taskforce on Coronavirus and Cholera said in a statement Monday that the suspension is applied to all primary and secondary schools in the capital, Lilongwe, and commercial hub, Blantyre.
Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda, co-chairperson of the taskforce and Malawi’s minister of health, told a press conference Tuesday the decision is a result of the continuing increase in the number of cholera cases in the two cities.
As of Monday, the bacterial disease, spread by dirty water, had killed more than 620 people out of 18,222 cases since the outbreak began in March.
Chiponda expressed fear for the safety of students and others if the schools remain open, adding that in just seven days, Blantyre recorded 792 cases with 36 deaths, and Lilongwe recorded 536 cases with 36 deaths.
But Malawian education and health rights campaigners say the timing of the suspension was wrong.
Hastings Moloko, trustee of the Private Schools Association of Malawi, told a press conference Monday that there is no logic in suspending learning in only two out of the 28 affected districts.
“The playing field is not leveled,” he said. “It is schools in Blantyre and Lilongwe that have been affected. While other students are not learning, students everywhere else in the country are learning. And yet these students will sit for exactly the same exams, exactly at the same time. So, Blantyre and Lilongwe students will be disadvantaged in terms of time to cover their syllabuses.”
Moloko said there is also no scientific evidence that cholera spreads more in schools than in homes.
Cholera is an acute diarrheal infection caused by ingesting food or water contaminated with bacteria. The disease affects both children and adults, and if untreated, can kill within hours.
Agnes Nyalonje, minister of education in Malawi, said the move is to protect the lives of the learners in these two cholera hotspot districts.
“The issue is a balance between protection of life and continuity of learning,” she said. “We have information that shows that currently across all schools, we are short of 1,262 boreholes or water supply in schools that need water supply. And we are saying personal hygiene and school hygiene have to go hand in hand.”
Nyalonje said her ministry has put measures in place that allow students in the closed schools to take lessons through distance learning, as was the case when the schools shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic.