Fishing Communities Response to Covid-19

Monday, 8 June 2020

Ripple Africa’s Fish for Tomorrow project operates along 300km of Lake Malawi’s shoreline, with almost 2,500 empowered community volunteers now monitoring fishing practices, protecting breeding areas, ensuring that illegal fishing gear is removed from the lake and educating community members about fish conservation. The Darwin Initiative has helped fund this project in the northern part of Nkhotakota District, but it is also operating in Nkhata Bay District and has recently started in Salima District. And as well as protecting endangered freshwater fish and increasing revenue from fishing, the project is now also playing a vital role in Malawi’s efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus Covid-19.

There is concern that Malawi will be hit hard by the virus – despite a youthful population profile, many people have underlying existing conditions such as HIV, TB, diabetes and malaria, making them extremely vulnerable. And with only 25 ventilators for more than 19 million people, treatment options will be limited. So far there is no lockdown as a High Court Injunction has been in place since April 17th following protests as there is little assistance for those who will lose their income and many fear starvation.

Information on frequent handwashing and social distancing in line with WHO guidance is being given out on television and radio but many of the people living in the remote rural areas of the country have no access to TV and only limited numbers have radios. There is therefore concern that these people will be less likely to know how to protect themselves from the virus.

Ripple Africa is now working with District Councils in Nkhata Bay and Nkhotakota Districts to ensure that as many people as possible have access to water for handwashing – broken boreholes are being repaired and buckets and soap have been provided to fish landing beaches, medical centres and markets. However, a more difficult issue was how to get the right information on protection against the virus to isolated communities along the lakeshore and an obvious solution was to use the volunteer Fish Conservation Committee (FCC) members as they already have experience of community education and live alongside those needing the information. Ripple Africa’s Fish for Tomorrow project has a considerably larger outreach network than the District Health Departments in the three districts where the project is operating, ensuring that the messages will reach those who most need information as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Simple, visual and locally relevant educational materials in local languages on social distancing and handwashing have been produced and FCC members are sharing this information with others in small groups, observing social distancing at all times. This is ensuring that the most vulnerable members of Malawi’s population understand how Covid-19 is transmitted, how to protect themselves and their families and what to do if they have symptoms.

In Kasitu, committee members have taken on the responsibility not only to make sure that people stick to the new rules in place at the beach landing site but also to make sure that the buckets are always topped up with clean water – quite a challenge with so many fishers using the beach and with a long walk to the nearest borehole.

Chair of Ngala FCC, Mr Kayola, said that despite resistance at first, people now understand the new measures and they are abiding by them – people visiting the beach landing site are now all washing their hands. Chief Maluma is full of praise for his local FCC’s efforts. “Liwaladzi is one of the most congested beach landing sites but people are really observing social distance now and also, they are washing hands regularly.”

In Matumbi, FCC members report any new arrivals at the beach to the Health Group so that they can be assessed and monitored. Chande FCC members are also working directly with other community groups to make sure that people stick to the measures that have been put in place. The beach is a passenger ferry terminal as well as a fish landing beach and a screening house has been built for all ferry passengers where health workers check them for Covid-19 symptoms and FCC members give them information on social distancing and handwashing. The chair of the FCC said: “Observing social distance and washing hands regularly has become the order of the day. This is a sign that people around the fishing community have really understood the message of combating Covid-19 pandemic.”

These activities are being replicated at all 246 beach landing sites along the northern shores of Lake Malawi. So empowering communities to protect fish is paying dividends in other ways as well – protecting the people that rely on them is equally as important in these difficult times!

This story was published in the Darwin Initiative Newsletter.