While government’s management of returnees from South Africa from May might have led to an increase in imported Covid-19 transmissions, Nation on Sunday investigations reveal that porous borders and use of uncharted routes are also increasing the risk of the transmission of the virus.
With 31 reported deaths as of Friday, people from Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania are still flocking into the country using uncharted routes while Malawians are also trekking outside using the same routes.
This threatens the fight against coronavirus in the country whose cases are already teetering towards the 3 000 mark as imported cases reached 722 with 1341 locally transmitted cases as of Friday.
At Muloza Border Post in Mulanje, Nation on Sunday crew, with the help from men who operate motorcycle taxis, locally known as Kabaza, managed to enter Villa Milanje in Mozambique using uncharted routes after spending only K5 000.
The taxi bicycle operators promised to help our crew.
“Because of Covid-19 it is difficult to use formal crossing. There is another route we can take to enter Mozambique.
“But have at least K2 000 to bribe police officers. At times they stop us from entering Mozambique,” said a bicycle taxi operator.
There was no police officer stopping Malawians from entering Mozambique and after two hours, our reporter returned to Malawi without any hustles.
At Biriwiri Border in Ntcheu, it was business as usual. People were travelling every day to buy cheap maize at Villa Ulongwe Market.
According to village head Ngalande, people are crossing into Mozambique to buy maize as a 50-kilogramme bag in Mozambique costs K4 500 while in Malawi it is going at K8 500.
“It takes two hours to reach Villa Ulongwe, every day people are travelling to Mozambique. Mozambicans also are crossing into Malawi. These people do not use formal border posts,” said Ngalande.
Ntcheu district environmental health officer William Moyo is worried that most people are not using formal crossing points.
“There are times when we find emigrants in the surrounding communities whose details do not appear in our daily records as to have crossed the border. A lot others are getting into the country using uncharted routes,” said Moyo.
He said by end of May, the district had 43 imported active cases and 96 people had been discharged from self-quarantine.
“These active cases are people who are coming from high risk countries. They are on follow up list, others develop symptoms in the course of the follow-up,” said Moyo.
He said Biriwiri is receiving people from Zambia, South Africa and Mozambique.
“We conducted Covid-19 sensitisation campaigns in the villages. We are urging them to report to us whenever someone has entered the country using unchartered routes,” he said.
Spokesperson for Mulanje District Hospital Innocent Chavinda said the facility erected a tent for quarantining suspects at the Muloza border where they are screening every person entering Malawi by checking temperature.
He said the hospital is working with Immigration and police officers in dealing with those using uncharted routes.
“With neighbouring areas, we follow up reported suspected cases and do laboratory tests,” said Chavinda.
The scenario of unpatrolled borders is not different in the districts of Chitipa and Karonga in the North.
In Chitipa, however, police spokesperson Gladwell Simwaka said the border patrol exercise was disrupted because officers were re-deployed to provide security during the fresh presidential election on June 23.
While confirming that they do not have enough transport means to patrol the borders, he said officers need additional resources, such as allowances.
Said Simwaka: “With the elections, the exercise was disrupted, so it’s not as it was happening in the past. We hope that after the transition, the exercise will resume as was the case previously, so that we ensure that no one is entering the country or leaving illegally, in order to stop the spread of Covid-19,” said Simwaka.
In the district, some people have been sneaking in and out of Tanzania to buy merchandise, a situation which director of health and social services Ted Bandawe earlier described as worrisome.
“The Mbilima border is becoming more prominent and more patronised not just for people of Chitipa, but for the rest of the country. Despite the ban to travel across people still want to run businesses and get their daily bread.
“So, they are still sneaking in and out during the day and even at night. Nowadays, it is even worse because most of them sneak during the night. So, it is scaring and we are working hand-in-hand with police to ensure joint border patrols,” said Bandawe.
In Karonga, police were not readily available for comment, but Bandawe’s counterpart, David Sibale, said the border patrols were ongoing.
“Police gave the same report on Friday during a meeting with Public Health Emergency Management Committee. They said the exercise is ongoing,” said Sibale.
Chairperson for Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, Dr John Phuka said the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services is better placed to comment on the people’s use of uncharted routes despite closure of the borders.
Both, the department’s director Masauko Medi and spokesperson Joseph Chauwa refused to comment on the matter.
All Malawi official borders remain closed except Mchinji, Songwe in Karonga and Mwanza and Kamuzu International Airport, to allow transit of essential goods and services.
The uncharted routes also compound the challenge of low testing kits that Phuka has highlighted.
“We would like to inform the public that the Ministry of Health is running low on the Covid-19 test kits stock across the country. As such, the available test kits are being used only on those that have clear Covid-19 symptoms.
“The country had procured a consignment of additional kits long time back but because of shipment challenges, the stocks are expected to arrive in two weeks,” said Phuka.