Coronavirus: Can Malawi afford a lockdown?

People must be encouraged to wash hands

Once again, the country finds itself between a rock and hard place. While the political temperature was somewhat ramped up with the Constitutional Court ruling on February 3 that the May 21, 2019 presidential poll was full of irregularities and that there should be fresh elections, little did Malawians know about the Coronavirus pandemic.

While Chinese authorities were busy struggling to deal with Coronavirus, here Malawians were still excited about the court ruling and contemplating how a fresh election would be conducted by the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) – under a chairperson and commissioners the opposition and Civil Society have branded incompetent.

In the city of Wuhan, in Hubei province in China, where the Coronavirus was first discovered early December last year, there have been over 3,245 reported deaths, but there have been questions over the reliability of its data. There could be more cases that have been swept under the carpet. What matters most now – and causing a lot of fear and anxiety is that the Coronavirus is close to home. It is now on the African continent and is spreading at an alarming rate.

There are Coronavirus cases in South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia. These are Malawi’s trading partners with a considerable population of Malawians living in these countries. We are literally surrounded by cases of Coronavirus. It is only by the Grace of God that until now (the time of writing this article), Malawi has not recorded a case. In view of the prevailing circumstances, President Peter Mutharika has declared a State of Disaster. President Mutharika has put the following measures to manage the situation:
Ministry of Health and Population is redeploying health personnel in all border posts and continue screening and surveillance of people in all entry points; Government has suspended hosting of international meetings and banned public servants from attending both regional and international meetings being hosted by affected countries. The ban has been extended to all people travelling on other government related activities such as sports; Government is advising the general public to avoid non-essential travel to the affected countries; Government has directed that all schools, colleges (including technical colleges), both public and private universities should be closed; Government is restricting public gatherings to less than 100 people forthwith; Government has banned travel of foreign nationals from countries highly affected by coronavirus disease. However, SADC countries are exempted. Returning residents and nationals from coronavirus affected countries will be subjected to self or institutional quarantine; Government will continue to monitor and review the situation and the restrictions from time to time within the next 30 days; Government has temporarily suspended issuance of visa to citizens of countries highly affected by coronavirus…

Of Coronavirus and a bloated Cabinet
We applaud government for putting in place all the necessary measures to help manage the Coronavirus pandemic. Truth of the matter is that it is not going to be easy to fight the Coronavirus for African states. The condition in Malawi’s hospitals is already hugely overwhelmed. The wards are full of patients suffering from diseases such as malaria – one of Africa’s greatest killers. Isolating and quarantining suspected cases will not be easy for a country like Malawi that has other equally pressing concerns in the health sector.

And for a fragile economy like Malawi, resources are hardly enough to counter the pandemic. Malawi is at the mercy of development partners yet again to prepare and raise awareness on the dangers of the Coronavirus. The available little resources must – from this moment – be channeled toward telling the people the importance of washing hands with soap and report any suspected cases to health authorities.

The need for those in authority, mandated to keep an eye on treasury, cannot be overemphasized. At a time when the President should have appointed a lean cabinet and save resources for disasters such as the Coronavirus pandemic, a few days ago he unveiled a bloated cabinet – a thank you cabinet to his electoral bedfellows from the United Democratic Front (UDF). It’s not what Malawians want at this point in time.

The bloated Cabinet will eat a good chunk of resources from the public purse through salaries and allowances to ministers and their deputies. Yet there are so many areas that await allocation of these hard-earned resources from the national budget. With presidential elections coming up sometime later in the year, treasury will struggle to fund a budget of K34 billion required by MEC to manage the polls.

Despite the Coronavirus pandemic, the country must move on in terms of productivity. The wheels of the economy must not ground to a halt. The question is: can Malawi manage a lockdown? What impact would that have on the economy? Financial markets are already in turmoil; no one is sure whether or not tobacco will be fetching good prices at the auction floors.
All politicians must bury their differences and join hands in managing the Coronavirus pandemic and its negative impact on the economy. Careless statements from politicians bent on gaining political mileage at a time when the country is under a lot of stress should be discouraged. For once, politicians can help to raise awareness as they campaign for their presidential candidates.

Traditional leaders, religious leaders, teachers, families and the media have a responsibility to inform the public about what Coronavirus is all about. It is unfortunate that some quarters are using social media to send wrong messages about the pandemic. We urge authorities to clampdown on those that are sending wrong messages deliberately to scare people.
We at The Lamp magazine join the rest of the world and the country in particular in calling upon the public to “wash hands”, and pray that this pandemic will not be as devastating as has been the case in other countries – especially in Asia and Europe. We pray and hope for a Coronavirus-free Malawi. Remember, basic protective measures against the new coronavirus are: Wash your hands frequently; Maintain social distancing; Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth; Practice respiratory hygiene; If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early; Stay informed and follow advice given by your healthcare provider.

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