By Wisdom Ngwira:
December 2019 will historically be remembered as the month when a new monster was born into the world.
It all started in the sub-provincial city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, China, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) was alerted of several cases of pneumonia of unknown cause detected in the city.
On January 9, 2020, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in China reported that a novel coronavirus called Sars- CoV-2 had been detected which was responsible for the several pneumonia cases in Wuhan.
This virus was responsible for causing the disease which was later christened Covid-19. On March 11, 2020, the WHO finally declared the outbreak a global pandemic.
When all this was happening, many people in the country never imagined that the disease would spill over to Africa, or later on to Malawi.
Many believed it was one of those outbreaks that come with pomp, but later die natural deaths. Many thought Covid-19 would follow in the footsteps of the Bird Flu and Ebola which threatened human existence but later faltered.
Like wildfire, the disease started spreading to different parts of the world. In Africa, the virus was first reported in Egypt when a first case was confirmed. Later, many countries on the continent confirmed positive cases of the virus.
The contagion finally in Malawi
As Covid-19 positive cases kept being registered in many African states, it was cases from South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania that woke up Malawians. Many Malawians travel to and from the Rainbow Nation which posed a big threat to the country on the possibilities of importing the virus.
To worsen the situation, all Malawi’s neighbours, Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania had confirmed positive cases of the disease. Government finally declared Covid-19 a national disaster on March 20, 2020.
On April 2, 2020, the nation finally confirmed three positive Covid-19 cases in Lilongwe’s Area 9 suburb. The cases were those of a Malawian of Asian origin who had travelled to India and was self-quarantined for 14 days, a family member and wife to the maid of the household.
Despite the nation registering the positive cases in Area 9, many people still believed that the disease would not spread widely as they believed it would be difficult for it to go down to locations where there are many people compared to Area 9.
However, shivers were sent to the country’s corners when later, another Covid-19 case was registered in Lilongwe’ populous Kaliyeka location.
This case aroused interest for many people since it was registered in one of the populous locations such that many feared it could be easy for the disease to spread compared to the Area 9 case. What followed later were numerous positive cases in Blantyre, Chikwawa, Zomba, Mzuzu and other districts.
On April 14, 2020, Malawi joined other African countries such as South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda and Kenya to declare lockdowns as a measure to contain the further spread of the virus.
Minister of Health Jappie Mhango, who used to chair a Special Cabinet Committee on Coronavirus, announced the 21- day nationwide lockdown in order to contain the spread of the virus, pursuant to section 31 of the Public Health Act.
Among others, government said it would restrict the movement of people in line with other countries that had imposed lockdowns and had seemingly worked in curtailing new infections.
Differing views on lockdown
Immediately after the government announced the nationwide lockdown which was scheduled to stretch from April 18 to May 9, 2020, various stakeholders spoke differently on the idea of a 21-day national lockdown.
Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Dan Namarika, believed that a national lockdown was the only realistic solution to containing the spread of the virus.
“We keep on saying that based on the Kuunika Model, we believe if the country is on a complete lockdown, we will be able to control the spread of the virus by among other things making sure that if anyone had the virus, it would start showing symptoms within the lockdown period.
“This will in the end help health personnel to treat that person. The most important thing however for people to know is that if left unchecked, the disease can kill 50,000 yearly, that is why we say a lockdown is ideal,” Namarika said.
Human rights lawyer Chrispin Sibande opined against a rush into a national lockdown. He was of the view that other local options of containing the spread of the disease should be explored since “Malawi has its unique challenges”.
He proposed that for the country to deal better with the Covid-19 pandemic, a countywide lockdown was not feasible but rather sectional lockdowns restricting movements in regions, districts and local areas.
“For example, in Lilongwe, people in Area 25 should remain in Area 25, so too those in Chinsapo, Area 23, Kauma, 18, 15, Mtsiriza and so on. The same measures will apply with other cities, towns and districts,” Sibande said.
Professor of economics Ben Kalua reasoned that economically, the nation would be paralysed in terms of socio-economic progress if a lockdown was implemented.
“For example, we have seen lockdowns paralysing economies in Italy, China and other countries. This cannot spare Malawi. Poverty is associated with inability to save which means the majority will suffer because there will be no business,” he explained.
The Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP)’s Development and Rights Arm, Church and Society and Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) agreed with the idea that a nationwide lockdown would negatively affect Malawians since many of them live on hand-to-mouth basis.
“While we are agreeing that the lockdown is ideal, we are asking the government not to rush with the lockdown, but rather first start dealing with what would be done to those Malawians who depend on hand-to-mouth survival.
“How would such people survive when the nation goes into a complete shutdown as many people rely on selling small merchandise? The majority of Malawians will be heavily affected if such a decision is upheld,” HRDC chairperson Gift Trapence argued.
The two institutions later cemented their stand against the lockdown when they obtained an injunction restraining the operationalisation of the lockdown.
Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) said it was no secret that the country which recently enjoyed relatively sound macroeconomic stability as evidenced by a stable exchange rate, low inflation and high accumulation of a foreign exchange currency buffer would suffer economically because of the pandemic.
“For now, we are looking at worse-case, moderate-case and mild-case scenarios and currently no one can tell with certainty. There is a greater uncertainty at the moment, but still I believe this is just a spike. We are continuing monitoring,” RBM Governor Dalitso Kabambe said.
Economics Association of Malawi Executive Director, Kettie Nyasulu, believes the pandemic will heavily inflict knotted shocks on the country such as a drop in domestic and external demand, reduced business and decline in consumer confidence, among others.
The World Bank’s new Africa Pulse, an annual economic update for the continent, predicted that the pandemic would cost the region around $37 billion and $79 billion in output losses for 2020 as a result of combined effects.
Rising cases and continued denial
From an initial three cases on April 2, 2020 the positive cases have so far shot to over 550 with six deaths as of yesterday. But despite this sharp rise in the confirmed cases, some people feel the disease is not yet in the country or doubt its seriousness.
At one point of government’s issuance of national updates on Covid-19, multitudes protested through the social media and other platforms that these were not genuine cases.
In Mzuzu, some residents in Mzilawaingwe area chased a Ministry of Health Ambulance which carried health personnel to trace people who had come into contact with a person who tested for Covid-19.
Mzimba District Council Director of Health and Social Services, Lumbani Munthali, complained that continued denial of the disease would retard efforts to manage the pandemic.
He said some people refused to be tested during contact tracing activities claiming the country does not have any Covid-19 case.
“This is bringing fear among health workers who may end up failing to trace, test and isolate contacts of the index cases,” Munthali said.
He said even some who tested positive could not believe it because they are not showing any signs of sickness.
Safety nets amid Covid-19
With the Covid-19 pandemic posing a serious threat to the country’s economy where 35,000 people in the tourism sector alone have lost their jobs, government and other non-state actors joined hands in mobilising resources to alleviate challenges faced by some of the affected people.
Government set aside K39.9 billion for social-cash transfer in the next six months to relieve vulnerable people who will suffer from the measures set out to contain the further spread of the pandemic.
President Mutharika announced that the programme would target 35 percent of the urban population and its direct beneficiaries would be vendors, minibus touts, Kabaza operators, street-connected children, small-scale traders, and casual labourers living in densely populated peri-urban hotspot areas.
“Government has set aside K38.9 billion to financially support vulnerable households in the cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, Zomba and Mzuzu.
“The programme is targeting 172,000 households in urban areas with 80,178 in Lilongwe, 66,744 in Blantyre, 17,258 in Mzuzu and 8,703 in Zomba cities respectively,” Mutharika outlined.
Yawning gap exists
In order to effectively fight the Covid-19 pandemic, government needs K157 billion, according to the Covid-19 Preparedness and Response Plan launched in April, 2020.
In the proposed plan, protection and social support has a lion’s share of K92.4 billion while food security came second with an allocation of K16.5 billion.
As of May 19, 2020, the country had only managed to mobilise less than K30 billion for the activities listed in the preparedness and response plan.
“Currently, we have K19.5 billion comprising of K7.5 billion from government and K12 billion from development partners meaning we still have a big deficit to meet targeted budget. We are still asking people to contribute while we are working something as government as well,” Minister of information, Mark Botomani stated.—Mana