The COVID-19 pandemic brought life and economic activities in Malawi to a near standstill. Government declared a national lockdown early on, restricting cross-city movements, and imposing a quarantine on anyone entering the country. Despite this, rules were not adhered to by the majority of the population who rely on daily economic activities and trading to survive. The country was also in the middle of the election campaign period.
The tea industry was classified as an essential service and allowed to continue operations despite other industries being shut down. The tea industry is a labour-intensive industry employing a workforce of around 50,000 unskilled and semi-skilled workers. However, the pandemic coincided with Malawi’s off-peak season for tea plucking and production (March to September), presenting a lower risk of COVID-19 transmission owing to the low concentration of people on the estates and in the factories.
The pandemic and its related restrictions did slow down implementation of Malawi Tea 2020 programme activities, as movement was limited and focus shifted to mitigating transmission. Programme stakeholders reviewed implementation progress and revised activities to ensure continuity while adhering to COVID-19 guidelines. Unfortunately, not all programme activities could take place as planned, with particular delays on the tea estates due to emergency response and restrictions. Where possible, project funds were repurposed to support COVID-19 prevention measures.
In addition to longer-term programme work, there has been a short-term emergency response on the ground to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in tea communities. TAML, PAWU, Oxfam Malawi, Rainforest Alliance and IDH coordinated an effort to provide all workers at tea estates with WASH materials to supplement what estates were providing, and to promote hygiene practices as a measure to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
TAML also conducted awareness campaigns in collaboration with the health sector and IDH to disseminate information on COVID-19 and its preventive measures across the tea industry. The programme supported PAWU in carrying out COVID-19 prevention sensitisation exercises, reaching 10,000 tea workers.
Smallholder farmers in the country also face a heightened risk of food and income insecurity as a result of COVID-19. To ensure that farmer training on strengthening livelihoods can still continue safely in small groups, ETP, IDH and individual ETP members have been distributing PPE and sanitation items. The partners have also made additional investments in kitchen gardens to enhance food security for over 4,000 smallholders and their family members. ETP also conducted a COVID-19 awareness campaign through posters and radio to help prevent the virus from spreading.
Despite strong commitment from all programme stakeholders, efforts to contain COVID-19 have been challenged. On the national level, the unstable political environment has resulted in mixed messaging on the prevalence of the virus in the country. Communication of the sensitisation process between estates and workers can also be improved.
Despite these limitations, there is continuous engagement with programme stakeholders to build resilience for smallholders, including the sourcing of WASH resources for use in fields, factories and clinics. Coupled with constant outreach to workers on preventative measures, this has proven useful in managing the pandemic within the tea sector.