What Corona?

  • In rural Malawi, it’s business as usual despite virus threat
  • Presidential orders largely ignored, little enforcement

Chrissy Ntonio is 86. She has never heard of coronavirus disease (Covid-19), let alone accessed any message of how to protect herself from it.

When one of our reporters covering this story asked her on Wednesday if she was aware of the coronavirus, she looked perplexed.

Ntonio: I don’t have a radio to get such information

The octogenarian, enjoying fresh air under a tree at her home, retorted: “Mutokamba za kolona yemweyu timavalayi? [Are you talking about the same rosary we Catholics use?”] Ntonio wondered.

When our reporter explained to her that Covid-19 was in fact a disease and gave her some basic hygiene tips she must follow to avoid catching it, especially washing her hands regularly with soap, she went silent for a while and then smiled.

“I cannot even afford soap to wash my body and my clothes, how can I have the luxury, assuming I miraculously get the soap, of spending it on washing my hands?

“I don’t have a radio to get such very important messages and to be honest with you, I sometimes stay over a month without washing my clothes with soap because I can’t afford it,” said the woman in a black blouse and torn wrapper (chitenje).

Tucked in a remote area in Blantyre North, 11 kilometres east of Lirangwe Trading Centre in Mdala Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chigalu, Ntonio is poor.

She is rural-based. She is also within the age bracket that is most vulnerable and easily succumbs to Covid-19.

From her poor Lirangwe surroundings, the ultra-poor Ntonio is among the more than half of Malawians who survive on less than $1 a day.

She is also within the 80 percent of the country’s population who live in rural areas where access to services, including information, is one of the greatest challenges.

Her story—and that of scores of people The Nation talked to on Wednesday in some rural areas of Blantyre, Mangochi, Nkhotakota and Mzimba—underscores the development communication crisis facing authorities as they try to implement measures that would help nip the virus in the bud before it wreaks havoc on a country with a dilapidated public healthcare system and enabling communication infrastructure.

Despite President Peter Mutharika’s decree limiting gatherings to below 100, including at funerals, churches and weddings; life appears normal in most of the areas sampled.

For example, at Chisonga Village in T/A Kapeni in Blantyre, we bumped into a funeral at a home.

By our estimates, there were at least 200 people sitting closely together; thus no social distance.

There was also no hand-washing facility in sight at the funeral and, of course, no one was wearing protective gear or mask.

It is difficult to control the number of people going to a funeral, said T/A Lundu in an interview at her headquarters hours earlier.

“This is our culture in which we believe that attending one another’s funeral helps build community cohesion. The idea is that when you are bereaved, people should also come in large numbers, so stopping people is not easy.

“Moreover, how do we measure at a funeral that people are more than 100? And let us assume that we manage to restrict funeral goers to under 100 people, but there are some with the virus among them, are you telling me no one will get the virus because people are less than 100?” she wondered.

Besides, said the T/A, she has not received communication from the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development regarding these restrictions; hence, she cannot enforce anything.

Yet, schools in her area have closed. That, she said, is because the Ministry of Education communicated to the schools.

At a funeral in Saili Village, in group village head Makata area in Blantyre, a Catholic father served Eucharist to believers directly into their hands, and not into their mouths. This, according to him, was meant to help prevent Covid-19.

Conspicuously missing on the preventive measures at the funeral were hand-washing tools as well. There was also no effort to police one-metre social distance rule. People were seen almost sitting shoulder to shoulder.

In Mzimba, life goes on as if coronavirus is merely a myth.

Random interviews with nine people around Mzimba Boma and surrounding areas on Wednesday revealed that they do not know what coronavirus is, how it is transmitted and how they can prevent it.

At the district’s main market, there were no hand-washing facilities and certainly no social distance as hundreds packed into the market.

“For us it is business as usual, as you can see there is no single hand-washing facility in this whole market,” said Eliza Phiri from Chisasa Village in the district.

“We just hear it [Covid-19] on the radios and social media, but I do not have much knowledge on how it is caused and how I can prevent it,” she said.

However, at Mzimba District Hospital, the situation was different, as officials have placed hand-washing facilities at the gate to the hospital.

Mzimba is one of the districts at high risk of being infected with Covid-19 considering that it has a fair share of people travelling to and from South Africa where cases have been registered.

In a separate interview, Inkosi Khosolo admitted that the district should tread carefully with people coming from South Africa.

He said: “We have people coming from South Africa every day and that poses a challenge because they can import the virus. I want also to ask government to speed up spreading information about this disease in the communities.”

When contacted for comment, Mzimba district medical officer Prince Chirwa said the health office already started engaging people on coronavirus through community health workers.

“Yes, there are some still not yet reached with the messages, but we already started campaigns on the same. We are also in the process of providing big shops and markets with hand-washing facilities,” he said.

In Mangochi, while people from various traditional authorities (T/As) said they heard about coronavirus in the media, there has been no word from government.

“As a result, despite knowing about the pandemic, we don’t know how we can protect ourselves from it,” said Ellen Mhone from Ntuwa Village, T/A Chowe.

Alex Amadu from T/A Makanjira in the same district also said more people in the area have little information about coronavirus because they are not reached with information by the authorities.

He said it would be critical if the health workers roll out sensitisation campaign about the same fearing that the district risks more deaths if the virus strikes due to the high nembers of people who go to South Africa.

“People are gathering at public places here; we are not washing hands. We are going about with our normal lives,” said Amadu.

In Nkhotakota, crowded markets and poor sanitation means that preventing Covid-19 will be a challenge.

Thirty-three-year-old Sylvester Moyo, a father of two who lives at Dwangwa Trading Centre, said they are trying to do everything possible to be safe from the virus, but poverty and poor utility services will be the greatest hindrance.

For example, he said, there are daily water shortages in his area, making it hard to wash hands even when they manage to have soap.

At Nkhotakota District Council, hand-washing facilities were placed in strategic areas with face masks distributed to employees, but such measures are yet to be implemented in communities across the district.

When asked district commissioner Medson Matchaya said they are taking measures to prevent the outbreak of the disease in crowded areas such as Dwangwa.

“We have got a team at the district hospital that is going to start going round within those slum areas so that they talk to them and tell them what to do and tell them how to behave,” he said. But there is a silver lining in some areas where some traditional leaders have put in place restrictions, including on funerals. For example,  senior group village head Kayenda alows only 20 people, including relatives of the deceased to sleep at a funeral as a preventative measure.

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