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Keeping coronavirus at bay in prisons

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Chimwemwe Shaba

As impenetrable as the prison walls appear, coronavirus still managed to get through them and, by December 20 2021, 65 cases were reported.

The fear of having coronavirus infestation far outweighed the hope that this, too, was just a moment in time and that, like all bad moments, it would pass.

To make matters worse, the Malawi Prison Service (MPS) raised concern over rising cases of Covid cases in the country’s penitentiary institutions.

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As of Monday, December 20 2021, there were 65 inmates and 14 members of staff who had tested positive for coronavirus at Maula Prison in Lilongwe, Mzimba and Zomba prisons.

Out of the 65 Covid patients, 40 were prisoners from Maula, two from Mzimba District while nine were from Zomba.

MPS spokesperson Chimwemwe Shaba indicated at the time that, as one way of taking control of the situation, the 65 people— all of whom presented mild symptoms of Covid— were separated from other prisoners to avoid a situation where they could infect others.

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He, however, raised concern over prisoners’ reluctance to get vaccinated, mainly because of “myths and misconceptions”.

“We have been sensitising them to the importance of getting vaccinated and we do this in collaboration with our colleagues from district health offices because up to now some inmates are reluctant to get the vaccines,” he said.

Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance Executive Director Victor Mhango indicated at the time that people who visit prisons could be the ones that were increasing prisoners’ chances of getting infected with coronavirus.

“People going in to see inmates are the ones that put them [inmates] at risk of getting the disease, which is why they [visitors] need to be tested before they interact with them and that is the only way we could save some [inmates] from contracting the virus,” he said.

However, congestion has been another ‘silent’ challenge to prison authorities’ efforts to stem coronavirus.

As at now, Malawi’s prisons are grappling with congestion, with inmates’ figures staggering at over 13,700 against the holding capacity of about 7,000.

This is worrying, said human rights activist Edward Chaka, citing rising cases of Covid in Malawi.

“At a time Malawians thought the Covid threat was over, coronavirus cases have resurfaced in the country and no one, be it those in prison and those outside it, is safe.

“Malawians must join hands with Ministry of Health officials so that, together, we can address challenges related to coronavirus infestation,” Chaka said.

Health rights advocate Maziko Matemba echoed the sentiments, saying there was a need for health officials to intensify Covid vaccination campaigns.

He said the country has enough arsenal, in terms of Covid vaccines, such that people have no excuse for not getting vaccinated.

Malawi has Oxford- AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines.

Just recently, the Ministry of Health announced that it had started administering J&J second dose after it got information that an additional dose can enhance one’s immunity.

J&J was previously a single-dose vaccine, unlike Covid vaccines such as Oxford-AstraZeneca.

“We would like to encourage the public to get the second dose because WHO recommends that countries are free to implement the recommendation or not but we, first, had to weigh the options before adopting them,” said Ministry of Health spokesperson Adrian Chikumbe.

Epidemiologist Titus Divala hailed the development.

“Administration of the second dose is important not only because the first dose was taken a long time ago but also because scientific research keeps bringing new information. So, people need to follow that,” Divala said.

The development is coming at a time Covid cases have been rising again.

As at June 11 2022, Malawi had registered 15 new Covid cases, zero new recoveries and zero deaths.

“All the new cases are locally transmitted; nine in Blantyre and six in Lilongwe. Cumulatively, Malawi has recorded 86,090 cases including 2,642 deaths (Case Fatality Rate is at 3.07 percent). Of these cases, 2,884 are imported infections and 83,206 are locally transmitted. Cumulatively, 82,927 cases have now recovered (recovery rate of 96.33 percent) and 277 were lost to follow-up. This brings the total number of active cases to 235. In the past 24 hours, there were zero new admissions and one new discharge from the treatment units. Two cases are currently admitted in our treatment units,” Health Minister Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda indicated in a statement.

Considering that Covid cases have resurfaced, there are indications that prison authorities do not want to be taken by surprise.

Prison authorities have, as such, embarked on a project aimed at constructing and renovating Covid isolation centres so that they can have a tinge of modernity.

This is being done at selected prison formations such as Mzuzu, Thyolo, Lilongwe and Mpyupyu in Zomba.

The Malawi Government is, through the Department of Disaster Risk Management Affairs, oiling the wheels of the project.

Shaba said this week that the facilities include five modern isolation cells, each with a recommended holding capacity of 20 prisoners, at Mpyupyu Prison.

“Each cell has four big windows, two small windows, five big electrical bulbs, two whirly birds fans, a ceiling made of steel, one toilet and a bathroom.

“These cells have maximum security and ventilation is good, such that they pass the test of safe and humane custody of offenders. More pleasing to note is that labour for the construction of these modern cells is being provided by both prison officers and skilled and unskilled prisoners,” Shaba said.

And there is more to the project other than shielding humans from coronavirus infestation.

“Take, for instance, the Mpyupyu Prison Project, which started on February 15 2022 and is expected to end on June 28 2022. Through the initiative, more than 48 prisoners are benefitting from on-the-job training in carpentry, welding, fabrication, bricklaying, painting and plumbing,” he said.

The idea, this time, is that, when the Covid menace is past us, inmates should still have something to cart home other than the scars of prison sentences.

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