As coronavirus disease (Covid-19) continues to wreak havoc across the globe and in Malawi, governments have been under severe pressure to come up with measures to contain the pandemic. Our staff writer EDWIN NYIRONGO asks former health minister PETER KUMPALUME to share his thoughts on the country’s response so far. Excerpt
How do you describe Covid-19 fight in Malawi compared to other countries?
I have not done an analysis to compare strategies different countries have used. However, from the news, we have done pretty much what other African countries are doing. It’s essentially test, isolate and contact tracing.
In developed and developing countries, Covid-19 has exposed the weakness of our medical supply chains. It has also shown us that what we thought was sufficient supplies, actually with this virus, we can never have enough of all we need to protect everyone.
You supported the lockdown announced by President Peter Mutharika a fortnight ago. Can Malawi afford that?
The virus will only spread if there is a host to infect. If there are no new hosts to infect, the virus will die naturally. So in line with this, what I said was “if what we really want is minimal numbers, then a lockdown is the best option”. I did not define what we as a country want. That is for other stakeholders to define.
A lockdown will ensure that the virus has no new hosts to infect. If what we want is something different, then a lockdown may not be the most efficient solution.
As for issues of people starving, my take is that hunger and disease are in our national anthem as ills we must fight to eliminate. Both ought to be done. The order depends on which in your analysis is a greater devil.
There are fears that some people would just get rich in the name of fighting Covid-19. Is the fear justifiable? And what’s your take on calls for only medical personnel to head Ministry of Health?
Government has mechanisms in place for managing public resources. These mechanisms have evolved over the years to cover gaps that have been identified. If these mechanisms are inadequate, then the appropriate protocols need to be instituted to close those gaps.
On the issue of medical personnel to be minister in the Ministry of Health, my personal opinion is that a ministerial position is a leadership position. A good leader will always surround himself/herself with technocrats that advise him/her appropriately to make right decisions. You can have a technocrat who is a bad leader and layman who is a good cabinet leader. Reference in point is the late Aleke Banda. What I have gathered is that he was a good minister wherever he served yet he wasn’t a technocrat. Leadership should not be undervalued.
How is politics hampering the battle against Covid-19?
I have not done any studies in this space, except to echo the words of the WHO [World Health Organisation] director general “This virus thrives where there is political disunity”. We must not let politics divide us in the fight against this virus. Politicians are just opponents, not enemies. The virus is the enemy of both sides. It does not distinguish the colours of your party. Let’s fight the virus and not each other.
Some quarters say government should involve opposition parties and other stakeholders in the fight against Covid-19. Is this necessary? And do you foresee the containment of Covid-19 in Malawi one day with hygienic methods like washing hands and social distancing?
As Malawians we must all take part in this fight. There must be no one idle, invited or not.
There is definitely a change in attitudes towards hand hygiene. This is a positive outcome from this pandemic. Let’s pray this behaviour continues.
Of course, all infections eventually die down. This is no exception. The only problem is we don’t know when it will die down. In most cases, it depends on the mechanisms we put in place and, to some cases, an act of God.
What is your last word or message to Malawians as regards Covid-19?
Covid-19 is real. It is here. The numbers are real and will continue to grow. And it kills. Follow the health guidelines to protect yourself, your family, your community and your country. No one is safe if someone is not following these guidelines.