Malawi is yet to acquire the first coronavirus (Covid-19) test kits that would enable it carry out tests weeks after the World Health Organisation declared the infection a global pandemic.
Meanwhile, Tanzania, Malawi’s neighbour to the north, has confirmed its first case—joining about 40 other African countries, including Mozambique, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Egypt and Liberia. Locally, over 170 people are reportedly being monitored by government while on self-quarantine.
University of Malawi’s College of Medicine (CoM), an institution which immediate-past Minister of Health Jappie Mhango had claimed was ready to start testing the virus this week, was yet to be supplied with the test kits.
CoM principal Mwapatsa Mipando, in an interview on Monday, said the college has the necessary machines to carry out coronavirus tests, but it was yet to receive the test kits from government.
He said: “The machines have always been there, but we are waiting for the test kits. They are standardised kits that the whole world is using; those are the ones we are waiting for.”
CoM epidemiology and public health professor Adamson Muula in a separate interview said Malawi was failing to utilise the window of opportunity—when the virus has not been confirmed in the country yet—to address all hygiene issues before the virus hits.
He said: “The consequences of this virus are beyond the health sector. The implications are immense. So far, no country globally is able to cope with the coronavirus and Malawi would do better to avoid it.”
Muula said Malawi is at a good time to fight the virus as the season for common cold is yet to arrive.
He said: “If one case is registered in Malawi, it would affect public transport, public gatherings, schools and the health system. If this virus attacks Malawi in May and July, we should consider ourselves gone because this is also the period Malawi is hit by a common cold.”
Muula, who delivered a public lecture on Covid-19 at Chancellor College at the weekend, suggested massive civic education on preventive measures.
He also suggested that city councils should put up strategic points where people can be washing hands.
But Society of Medical Doctors in Malawi chairperson Amos Nyaka, who is also an ophthalmologist at Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH), said samples taken from people to be tested for coronavirus are taken to Community Health Sciences Unit (CHSU) in Lilongwe.
He said by next week, CoM in Blantyre will also be conducting the tests.
Said Nyaka: “In terms of capacity, we have enough specialists in the country to do so, but I cannot say much on equipment. There are also quarantine facilities at Kameza in Blantyre, Mchinji, Karonga, the Skin Centre at KCH, Mzuzu Central Hospital and Mwanza.”
Last week, President Peter Mutharika appointed a Special Cabinet Committee comprising Cabinet ministers to look into Covid-19 planning and policy.
The committee, which was led by Mhango, later announced that government had come up with a K2.4 billion plan to prepare for the Covid-19, which would largely be financed by donors. The Cabinet has since been dissolved.
So far, government has announced that travellers from China, Finland, Italy, Greece, Islamic Republic of Iran, Republic of Korea, Germany, France, Spain, United States of America, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Austria and Japan will undergo mandatory 14-day quarantine on arrival in Malawi.
But missing on the list are Malawi’s close neighbours and trading partners such as South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania that have confirmed cases of the virus.
Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen), which sits in the Malawi Health Cluster—a group that responds to outbreaks in the country—has since said the country is lagging behind in awareness and prevention measures.
Mhen executive director George Jobe said the network’s members travelled through the borders of Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia without being screened as the country was focusing only on those coming through airports or those in big buses and vehicles.
“People can walk through the borders without being screened. Our members tried it. We ask ministries of Health and Home Affairs to intensify the screening,” he said.
Jobe also expressed concern over the levels of awareness messages so far, saying they were not satisfactory as ordinary Malawians were not aware what coronavirus was.
He said Mhen recommended that government should put up hand-washing facilities in towns and cities, ban international conferences in the country, prohibit foreigners on temporary work permit and tourists coming into the country, and ask the media to offer free messages on their platforms to increase awareness.
Elsewhere, heads of States across the world have issued presidential decrees, ordering, among other things, travel and public gathering bans, quarantining cities, closing schools, suspending church services and intensifying hygiene in response to the virus.
But despite appointing a Cabinet committee on coronavirus, Mutharika is yet to make a public statement on the pandemic.
His spokesperson Mgeme Kalilani said there was no official communication yet from the President, saying when need arises the nation will be updated.
Said Kalilani: “Please, let’s encourage people to follow the health tips and updates on coronavirus that the Ministry of Health is issuing.”
CoM last Wednesday announced it had set up a team to work with the Ministry of Health to provide policy and technical direction on Covid-19.