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Power outages strike hospitals

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Already saddled with a range of challenges that greatly compromise their operations, hospitals around the country are grappling with the task of saving lives in the face of massive power outages, Malawi News has learnt.

The Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) has, however, said its load shedding programme gives preference to such critical institutions as hospitals which cannot do without power.

But the parastatal electricity supplier has underlined that it can only go to some extent in that regard if the situation requires that it should save its systems from total collapse, which would exact catastrophic consequences on the country.

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Since last month, Escom has embarked on a massive load shedding programme which it attributes to insufficient generation and transmission capacity.

And while blackouts are a normal occurrence in Malawi, the situation has worsened recently with power outages lasting for eight hours or more in some instances.

The state of affairs has brought the country’s hospitals on their knees as they are being forced to take extra measures to ensure lives are saved.

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They are spending more of their already-stretched funding in purchasing higher amounts of fuel with which to run their generators.

This measure is intended to ensure that the facilities at least serve delicate health conditions in theatres, mortuaries, for patients on oxygen machines and in labour and children’s wards – services that cannot work without power.

But in their effort to save lives in those departments, other areas such as running of ambulances are being deprived of resources.

This has resulted in some operations being either scaled down or put on hold altogether.

Escom says the electricity situation the country is going through shall improve in 2016, by which time hospitals will have been left with the task of counting the cost of lives lost, fuel debts accumulated and health services not delivered.

In Nsanje, following the unexpected increase in fuel consumption due to power outages, the District Health Office is now battling to win over its two nearest fuel suppliers to obtain fuel on credit.

The DHO already has outstanding debts with the two filling stations.

Nsanje District Health Officer (DHO), Alex Chijuwa, said their fuel requirement is 7,000 litres a month.

However, due to funding problems, they have had to make do with just a third of that requirement at 2,400 litres.

“Now with the persistent and prolonged blackouts, the situation had become really dire,” he said.

“We owe some suppliers a lot of money including Escom itself and water board. Some of them are threatening to drag us to court. In fact, I avoid picking some calls suspecting that it could be some creditor calling to press for their payment,” he said.

Chijuwa added: “We are trying our best to ensure we keep the kitchen, the mortuary, the maternity and children’s wards running because these are delicate areas.

“With inadequate funding which is well known, the situation has been bad all through but now the prolonged power outages have pushed us to the edge.”

DHOs in Ntcheu and Mangochi reported similar concerns indicating that they have had to cut down on other services just to ensure that critical areas are serviced to avoid loss of lives.

“We are really stretched. You will be aware we have raised the issue of cuts to our budgets and the power cuts have made things more difficult as it means we have to rationalise our operations in favour of the services where lives are in serious danger,” said William Peno, DHO for Mangochi.

In Karonga, the District Health Office is now spending over K500, 000 every week to purchase fuel to run its generators to ensure it services departments that cannot do without power.

“Ordinarily, the situation would be relatively easier for us to deal with if the blackouts lasted just one or two hours. But we have eight hours or so of no power from Escom. That is too much for us to bear,” said DHO Charles Sungani.

“We have taken this problem up with Escom managers here but there has been no change so far,” he said.

In the 2015/16 financial year, government allocated K78 billion for public health, which is K3 billion less than what was allocated for the sector in the 2014/15 budget.

In its response to public outcries on the budget cuts to the sector, government said the funding would be shored up by K55 billion worth of off-budget donor support.

Yet, the same government admits in the Malawi Health Sector Plan of 2011 that on average, 19 percent of the pledged donor funds do not reach Malawi’s health sector as they are consumed by overheads and transaction costs.

Asked whether Escom makes any special consideration in the implementation of its load shedding programme, Public Relations Officer for Escom Kitty Chingota said they make preference for critical institutions such as water boards, security facilities and hospitals.

“We do our best to ensure that such facilities have minimal suffering from load shedding. We make sure this happens and the hospitals should be assured we try our best in that regard.

“However, it has to be understood that we also have a duty to save the systems from collapsing. So where demand outstrips supply, we have to manage the situation so that we save our systems from total collapse. In that situation, it is a challenge for us to save such facilities in the best way possible,” she said.

For long, Escom has been criticised for the power woes gripping the country, with some attributing this to the parastatal’s monopoly of the sector.

Currently, Escom is responsible for generation, transmission and distribution of electricity in the country.

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