Someone claiming to be a convict serving his sentence at Zomba Maximum Prison called me on Friday last week.
“Abwana, kuno ku Zomba Maximum Prison, ife akaidi tili pa chiopsezo chachikulu. Anthu 17 awapeza ndi corona. Awatsamutsira mu chipinda china. Tili ndi mantha chifukwa tikuchita share nawo same ventilation. Tithandizeni.” (Boss, I am calling from Zomba Maximum Prison. Please help us publicise this. It’s about our safety. Seventeen inmates have tested positive for corona virus. Our worry is that they have just been isolated from other inmates and put in one room—previously occupied by those on remand—just next to our room. The problem is that although they are in another room, we share the same ventilation facilities with them).”
This was just a claim usually glorified as a news tip in journalistic language. Our job was to verify this claim and dig further. So in no time someone was on it. But we hit a wall. The Prisons spokesman dismissed us by saying he had no comment then as his institution would release a statement on the Covid-19 situation in the Prisons on Monday. On Monday we waited. There was no statement. Tuesday. Nothing. The said statement came on Wednesday with a positive spin that the Prisons Department had intensified Covid-19 testing and that so far 17 people—15 inmates and two warders had tested positive for Covid-19. The 17 had been isolated accordingly.
So our inmate informer was not far from truth after all in terms of the veracity of the information. Save for the insignificant difference that two of the 17 are warders. And that was seven days earlier. But for reasons best known to Prisons, they could not come forth with information when we and the public needed it most.
The point I am making is why hide or withhold vital information from the public when such information would save a life? Unfortunately, this is still the culture in most public institutions. Not that the private sector is any better. But in the public sector, the problem is aggravated by bureaucracy. The institutions’ spokesperson wants to get approval from his or her bosses first before releasing anything to the media.
Ordinarily this is normal. But what is abnormal is that the approval process takes forever. Meanwhile someone would have benefitted from the information that is being kept under wraps if the approval was made a little earlier. Much more so in this Covid-19 pandemic era. Going public about ones or an institution’s Covid-19 status triggers a chain of life-saving activities such as contact tracing and testing and in that way so much is achieved. But so far it remains a serious problem in the country.
Kudos to those who after suspecting something they have been proactive and taken precautionary measures and got tested. Many thanks to those who have gone further to alert friends and relatives about their status especially after testing positive for Covid-19. We are in a very difficult situation. This second wave of Covid-19 is hard hitting. The new cases running in several hundreds every day are novel and increasing exponentially. Imagine 40 deaths in 48 hours! The figures about the dead are not just statistics. They are about people we know. People we have interacted with, people we pray with, people we have an emotional attachment to.
There is palpable fear among the people everywhere you go. No one wants to mingle with anybody or go into crowed places and yet we have to survive. And to do so you have to go places. We are a nation in distress. The presidential panic button declaring a state of national disaster could not have come later.
This is the more reason by now the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 ought to have engaged an extra gear after the President ordered it to work out measures and a strategy on the same.
This article goes to press on Thursday but the newspaper only comes out on Saturday. Hopefully by the time you will be reading this article the taskforce will have escalated the distress button and announced serious measures on the way forward for the country to contain the pandemic.
That is why not only the Prisons Department but everybody and all institutions—public as well as private—should be handy with information on Covid-19. When individuals and organisations withhold information on the pandemic, they fail to play their role of empowering the nation to contain the pandemic. They are accomplices in genocide in the true definition of the term.