“I have a critical role — to raise awareness about the coronavirus among our listeners, particularly farmers,” says Gladys Phiri of Farm Radio Trust in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. “I tell them ways to prevent it,” she says. “I also practise what I tell my listeners. Even at home and everywhere I go, I practise personal hygiene, regularly washing my hands with soap, observing social distancing and limiting my movements.”
The World Food Programme (WFP) provides food assistance to more than a million people in Malawi, which has a population of nearly 18 million.
Since the very first cases of COVID-19 were discovered in China at the end of 2019, the disease has continued to spread across the world, sparing no continent, almost no country. At the time of writing, Malawi has 36 confirmed COVID-19 cases.
With safety measures fully enforced by the Government to contain the spread of the virus, which has caused three deaths in the country, all gatherings are restricted and people are asked to observe social distancing. Yet, as with any epidemic, the greatest enemy is ignorance. Ignorance begets rumour, misinformation, the spread of fear and, nowadays, fake news.
In this context, radio can safely relay COVID-19 prevention messages to people in rural areas with no or limited access to newspapers, television and social media.
With support from the Flanders Government in Belgium, Farm Radio Trust — a long-term partner of WFP in Malawi— uses radio and other channels such as a dedicated hotline and texting, to share weather information and agricultural advisories with smallholder farmers. It is reaching out to more than 700,000 listeners and its programmes are picked up by Zodiak Broadcasting Station, which has a national listener base of 2.9 million.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, WFP continues to partner with Farm Radio Trust to also share awareness messages with rural farmers.
“I source the right information about the pandemic from the authorities like Ministry of Health … to produce appropriate programmes for the farmers,” says John Mpakeni, a producer at Farm Radio Trust. “I also engage a lot with farmers when I’m in the field, collecting radio programme content so I understand well their language. It’s very encouraging to see more and more farmers with handwashing facilities at their homes and at meeting points.”
“Positive messaging in our radio programmes is critical because the virus is preventable. I want listeners to grasp this message and take necessary precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19,” he concludes.
“My role here is to collect market-price data from farmers. However, because our radio also speaks about the virus, some farmers take advantage of this to ask about COVID-19,” says Takondwa Chindiwo, a call centre intern at the Trust. “I have the official messages sent by the Ministry of Health, so it is easy to respond to farmers’ concerns on the coronavirus. One never knows who can be saved through this small gesture.”
Malawi has in the recent decades registered an escalation of natural disasters including floods, dry spells, strong winds, disease and pest outbreaks. These disasters have destroyed people’s livelihoods fuelling the vicious cycle of hunger in the process. Now, on top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening millions of people already vulnerable due to food insecurity, malnutrition, climate change and other disasters.
WFP Executive Director David Beasley has warned that in addition to the threat posed by COVID-19, the world faces “multiple famines of biblical proportions” that could result in 300,000 deaths per day — a “hunger pandemic”.
At the global level and in Malawi, WFP is working around the clock to maintain assistance programmes despite the global outbreak and has moved quickly to develop and implement plans to reorganize food distributions, adapting them in order to protect both staff and food assistance programme participants.