The death of minister of Transport Sidik Mia and Local Government’s Lingson Belekanyama last week Monday put a human face to Covid-19 figures the Ministry of Health churns out daily. However, every life matters and the death rates are rising alarmingly. In this interview, national Covid-19 steering committee co-chairperson John Phuka tells our News Analyst SUZGO CHITETE how the health care system is bending backwards as the second wave spikes.
After we seemed to have managed the pandemic, why are we witnessing a rapid increase in Covid-19 cases and deaths?
We know from the science we have read that the new virus spreads faster. This is why you may recall that on December 22, we announced stricter measures, including restriction of entry as well as asking people to refrain from celebrations and reduced public gatherings to less than 100. But you may recall that there was an injunction. So this is one factor that has brought us here. We cautioned that it is the musicians that got the injunction, but asked the citizens to refrain from celebrations. So the public health cautioned constantly. The minister of health spoke constantly. The Presidential Task Force spoke constantly. But all this was ignored.
Are you suggesting that if your guidelines were followed, the situation could not have been as it is today?
Exactly. At this point, in any case, we are in the thick of the forest. So urgent matters that government is looking at is how to take care of its people in terms of tests and treatment. These are the major issues we have in focus because that is more critical at this point in time. It is unfortunate we have found ourselves in this thick forest, but grieving will not help. We just have to do our best to come out of the woods. We wish we were not here, but here we are and we wish to come out quickly. Hopefully, now the citizenry should remember to implement the preventive measures without being forced so that we can protect ourselves.
The cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba have emerged the hardest hit. Why?
When you look at the travel report, you will notice that destinations of those travelling from outside the country to Malawi are these cities as well as Mangochi, Nkhata Bay and Mzimba. It is not surprising that the disease pattern is following the same pattern. You must remember that when the returnees arrive, that also becomes a factor of spreading the virus more. Mangochi and Mzimba are usually the main destinations of those returning from South Africa. This is the reason the two are also featuring highly. But there is more activity in the city, so even local transmission is higher.
When the returnees come home, there is always a sharp increase in cases. What is the best solution for this?
We have established [the Malawi Prison Service training school at] Mapanga in Blantyre as a reception centre. This is one of the major procedures to ensure that those that come do not transmit the virus, but get tested, know their status and then go home and quarantine. So, communities should be able to support these people to adhere to quarantine procedures.
We have noticed a 400 percent increase in admissions. How are the hospitals handling this sharp increase?
I would be surprised if such an increase does not overwhelm anyone. These are high dependence patients, so the answer is yes the hospitals are overwhelmed. We are where we did not want to be. But as the government’s response team, we are doing everything we can and it must also be said to the population that the numbers of deaths are very alarming, the number of admissions are very alarming and number of cases are also very alarming. However, let us remember to thank the health workers because they are doing a fantastic job. We do have a good number of patients who are recovering because of the good job of health workers. Not all is lost. We are confident and happy with the work they are doing. In such a pandemic, which has disturbed even bigger and stable economies, with our meagre resources, we are doing well so far to manage the disease. We have a system that is overburdened but we are doing a good job to get out of where we are now.
With all the preventive messages being disseminated, what more needs to be done to ramp up compliance as Malawians still appear to take the pandemic for granted?
Behaviour change is an interesting concept. Sometimes people have the knowledge, but they need extra motivation to respond. We do not give up on people. Our job is a calling to serve humanity, so we cannot get tired because people do not seem to listen. To say people are not listening is a bit unfair because those that are responding will be disappointed. We should always remember to balance [the narrative]; to appreciate those that are religiously following the guidelines while encouraging others to do the same. Public health messages have to continue for the time being and in the long run more people will realise why it is important to follow these measures. We have reversed the situation before and we are optimistic that even this will be reversed if we all do what is right.