Gaps in coronavirus response


Coronavirus (Covid-19) continues to spread around the world like bushfire. First, it was in China, then parts of Europe and now closer home in South Africa and Zimbabwe. In this week’s Friday Shaker, TAONGA SABOLA exposes some risky behaviours by Malawians that could expose them to the deadly virus.

It’s 12:05 on a Wednesday afternoon and the South African Airways aeroplane has just landed at Kamuzu International Airport (Kia) in Lilongwe.

As usual, the coming in of a plane means business for taxi drivers plying their trade outside the airport.


As per tradition, they rush through the airport’s main entrance to welcome the arriving guests and take them to their final destinations.

Ironically, the taxi drivers do not know who they are meeting and where the guests are coming from.

To them, what is crucial is to hook up a passenger who will help get their daily bread.


As the passengers complete the airport checks and walk out of the restricted area, the unsuspecting drivers shout: “Taxi, boss! Taxi, madam! Taxi, bigy!”

Unlike the airport officials who wear protective gear such as masks and gloves, most of the taxi drivers do not.

By the time the last passenger appears from the restricted area, most of the drivers are gone with their passengers to various destinations, especially to the city of Lilongwe.

Just like Immigration Department officers, airport cleaners, airport police officials and Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) staff, the taxi drivers are a high risk group who come into contact with visitors when they come into Malawi.

Feston Maduka is the chairperson of the taxi operators at Kia and says the drivers are fully aware of the outbreak of coronavirus in countries such as China, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Maduka claims the drivers have masks and gloves which they are supposed to wear when transporting the passengers to their destinations but that some do not use them for personal reasons.

“We do have the gloves; some were given to us by health officials while others buy them from Lumbadzi,” Maduka says.

While the taxi operators are taking the risk and hoping that all their passengers are fine, airport officials are leaving no stone unturned.

Starting from the health section to Immigration section, police and MRA officials are spotted wearing masks.

Kia Police Public Relations Officer, Sapulain Chitonde, says airport officials are not taking any chances in as far as the coronavirus is concerned.

“We are taking all the precautionary measures to ensure that we don’t contract the virus in the unlikely event that it gets here.

“We always make sure that when getting into contact with the passengers, we protect ourselves by wearing protective gear such as masks and gloves,” Chitonde says.

Procedures at the airport revealed that when passengers arrive, they fill a health form indicating where they are coming from and where they have been in the past couple of weeks.

The passengers then have their body temperatures checked and those with higher-than-normal temperatures or those coming from coronavirus hotspots are advised to go for self-quarantine at home for about 14 days.

Scope of coronavirus across the world

On Wednesday, World Health Organisation (WHO) declared coronavirus a pandemic, raising alarm that countries are not working quickly and aggressively enough to fight the disease it causes, Covid-19.

WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, says they are deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread, severity and alarming levels of inaction.

Wednesday’s pronouncement came weeks after WHO had hesitated to make the pandemic declaration, for fear of inciting panic or prompting some countries to flag in their efforts, even though many epidemiologists believed the coronavirus had already spread to pandemic levels.

As of the day, there were more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 people had died.

“In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of coronavirus cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries, climb even higher,” Ghebreyesus says.

What Malawians know about the virus

Pilirani Mtunthumila is a pork vendor at Mchepa Trading Centre a stone’s throw away from Kia.

Mtunthumila says he once heard about coronavirus on the radio but cannot explain exactly what it is.

“I just know that it is a disease that is killing people in China but I do not exactly know what it is like,” Mtunthumila says.

Equally ignorant about the disease is Esmie Sitolo of Ndoliro Village in Senior Chief Msakambewa Dowa District.

Sitolo, a Presbyterian, says she only knows that coronavirus is the rosary’s vernacular name.

“You mean the ‘corona’ is spreading diseases. I don’t know anything about that,” she says offhandedly.

Mtunthumila and Sitolo are just examples of Malawians who have limited-to-no information about the devastating disease which continues to trouble even the best economies such as the United States and China.

Threat to poor countries

WHO Communications Manager at Africa Region, Saya Oka, says there is no time to lose and Africa has to prepare for coronavirus as it is closing in on the continent.

“As coronavirus has spread around the world and significant outbreaks occurred in other countries, the risk of transmission to Africa increased. Now that there have been cases confirmed in sub-Saharan Africa, it is especially important that countries put stringent early detection and surveillance measures in place,” Oka says.

According to Oka, WHO’s main fear is that countries could develop an unmanageably large caseload that could then easily overwhelm existing health systems that are already dealing with many diseases and challenges.

Oka says their key point is to limit transmission from affected countries and to ensure that countries in WHO African region have the capacity to prevent, detect, isolate and also to provide appropriate treatment to people that may be infected.

She says it is important to ensure that populations have the appropriate information at least to avoid the disease and limit transmission.

What authorities in Malawi say

Health Minister, Jappie Mhango, says the government has developed a Preparedness Plan budgeted at K2.4 billion to fight the disease.

Mhango says through press releases, television or radio interviews, jingles, leaflets and more, his ministry is disseminating information to the public about the outbreak and how to prevent or control it.

He says in collaboration with the Chinese Embassy in Malawi, the Malawi Government is advising Malawians to avoid travelling to China until the outbreak is controlled.

Mhango adds that the Chinese Embassy is also advising its nationals in China not to travel to Malawi until the outbreak is controlled.

“We are screening for coronavirus in all travellers arriving in Malawi through our international airports. We are following up for 14 days all travellers from China, Italy, France, Germany, Iran and South Korea. So far, as of 9 March 2020, we had in total followed up 233 people. [Some] 111 people are still under self-isolation or quarantine. No person has been found with the disease.

“The government, through the Ministry of Health and Population, has also put in place a mechanism for laboratory confirmation of the coronavirus in patients who may be suspected of the infection. Currently, samples requiring test for Covid-19 are being sent to a WHO-approved laboratory in South Africa,” Mhango says.

He adds that in collaboration with its partners, the Ministry of Health is ensuring that hospitals have the capacity to manage patients suspected of coronavirus through training of health workers and provision of drugs and supplies.

Can self-isolation work?

Much as the concept of self-quarantine or self-isolation could work where strict discipline is concerned, observations at Kia show that some people under this category were spotted hugging and cuddling their relatives on arrival.

This casts a big shadow of doubt on whether strict adherence to self-isolation could be achieved.

What China says

Chinese Ambassador, Liu Hongyang, says there is no single Malawian infected with coronavirus in China.

He says there were 63 Malawians in the Covid-19 hotspot of Wuhan of which 56 are students.

He says the embassy has instituted a number of measures in conjunction with the Malawi Government to prevent and control the pandemic.

Among others, Hongyang says the embassy has set up a response team with the Chinese community and the Association of Chinese Companies in Malawi, in addition to setting up a working mechanism with the Ministry of Health of Malawi which is keeping daily contact with airport authorities, immigration offices and quarantine teams at Kia and Chileka Airport.

“We also have daily contact with Ethiopian Airline representatives residing in Lilongwe. We have a list of all passengers coming from China daily if there are any. I want to stress here that all passengers from China include Chinese nationals and foreign nationals as well. In order to have an absolute safety and a Covid-19 free Malawi, I would suggest that all passengers from countries with Covid-19 cases be screened at ports of entry,” Hongyang says.

One can only hope that these measures will work and spare Malawi from this deadly killer which has destabilised the world causing panic and fear.

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