Amid an increasingly fierce scramble for jobs and falling crop yield from degraded soils, busloads of young Malawians keep fleeing to South Africa to beat poverty.
When Suwedi Maniwelo, 20, joined the exodus to Johannesburg, he visualised himself earning more than he needed to survive, sending savings home, building a decent house, doing business and securing a brighter future.
However, the young Malawian from Mangochi, the main senders of migrants to South Africa, wasn’t as lucky.
His search for a way out of poverty was cut short when South African police detained him for deportation on January 3 this year.
“I was roaming the streets of Pietermaritzburg, looking for casual work in shops, homes and construction sites while searching for permanent employment so that I could send valuable money home,” he recalls.
Maniwelo offers vivid flashbacks of the day to forget as the arrest proved a turning point in his life: “I had just turned a corner when a police van cruised past me. Then I heard screeching wheels as the driver engaged a reverse gear. The van stopped just next to me. The police officers jumped to the ground and demanded to see my immigration documents. I was cornered. My passport had expired.”
Maniwelo was bundled into the van, speeding off to a police station. Nine days later, a court sentenced him to deportation.
“They immediately took me to Lindera Detention Camp where thousands of foreign nationals endure a lengthy wait for flights to their countries,” he recalls. “While there, I heard about a strange outbreak in Wuhan City, China.”
It never occurred to Maniwelo that the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) would become a global emergency, spilling across southern Africa.
“The less known disease we christened corona was spreading fast in congested confinements, claiming hundreds of lives daily. This scared me to the bone. No one felt safe in the densely populated detention camp,” he recalls.
South Africa has confirmed 1 625 deaths from 76 500 known cases since Egypt diagnosed Africa’s first patient on February 25.
“When I heard about the first case on the continent, I knew it was just matter of time before it spread across the continent,” he says.
South Africa confirmed the first case on March 5, a citizen who had shown no symptoms on his way back from Italy.
The news jolted Lindera detainees to pressurise authorities to fast-track their deportation.
“As it was taking too long to send us to our respective countries, we asked authorities to urgently deport us. We resolved to stage a strike, but we were afraid of punishment from brutal authorities,” he explains.
Authorities at Lindera constantly briefed the detainees how to prevent the disease transmitted through direct contact with infected droplets on contaminated surfaces as well as when talking, coughing or sneezing.
The precautions include frequently washing of hands with soap, wearing face masks, keeping safe distance, avoiding crowded settings and keeping hands off frequently touched surfaces.
“A day at Lindera was like waiting for a deadly infection to take our souls and there was nothing we could do about it. We had to do with weekly swabs inserted into our noses to extract secretions for coronavirus tests,” he states.
Apart from intensifying testing to identify new cases, South Africa announced stay-at-home measures and sealed its borders to non-residents—making it difficult for migrants to return home or go to work.
With the relaxation of the strict lockdown measures, Maniwelo was one of 140 Malawians who finally returned home on May 29—ending four months in detention. The returnees flew back through Lilongwe, from where they were taken to Nalikule Teachers College for swab tests and lodging until their results were out two days later.
The returnees were welcomed by government officials and partners, including Unicef and Malawi Red Cross Society which are supporting the national Covid-19 response.
“There is no place like home,” says Maniwelo. “Alighting from the plane at the cargo section, I relished fresh air.”
Malawi is expected to receive about 5 000 Malawian returnees from South Africa and 2 000 from other countries, according to the Department of Disaster Management Affairs.
Given the unknown levels of vulnerability of returnees, there is need to keep the returnees in a safe holding centre with critical life-saving interventions to avert community transmission of Covid-19.
With 448 imported cases out of 564 confirmed cases, the healthcare system may be overwhelmed by the returnees.
Maniwelo vows never to go to South Africa, the epicentre of the coronavirus disease in the 15-nation Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc).
But he is worried about lack of jobs in Malawi weeks after 118 were injured in a stampede during walk-in interviews for healthcare jobs in Mzuzu.
“I just want to start a small business to help me get basic needs while settling down in my community,” he says.