On June 30, Felix Chisoni returned to Police Secondary School in Zomba to paint decaying school blocks where he learnt from 2003 to 2004.
It was an important day for the librarian at Kamuzu College of Nursing Campus in Blantyre, but he soon found himself fighting an invisible foe that has claimed 39 lives from over 2 430 confirmed cases in Malawi.
“Just a day later, I began coughing and sneezing. I thought my illness had to do with paint fumes, but after five days, the difficulty in breathing was getting out of hand,” he narrates.
From the thrill of repainting his former school, Chisoni was battling shortness of breath, high fever and other symptoms of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) discovered in China last December.
He states: “I also suspected tuberculosis, but chose to believe it’s Covid-19. I started calling the 4747 hotline provided by the Ministry of Health. After some struggles, someone picked the call and told me striking healthcare workers would assist me when they get their risk allowances dating back to April.
“I felt dejected. To me, this was an emergency. I was dying and I couldn’t wait to get tested.”
On July 8, Chisoni forced his way into Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre for a Covid-19 test. A team of understanding health workers inserted a swab into his nose to extract some fluid for laboratory tests, which confirmed his Covid-19 status.
“When my results came, I felt down but relieved because I know the enemy. I vowed to follow all measures to live and protect my family members. I thought about my six-year-old son, my dependents, brothers, sisters and friends. I was confused,” he says.
Chisoni believes that the country has numerous undetected Covid-19 cases excluded from tests or support by glaring healthcare gaps.
“Sadly, we have consistently and collectively created problems for ourselves by continuing to hold crowded rallies instead of promoting social and physical distancing,” he says.
When other countries were fighting coronavirus, Malawi went to the polls with minimal coronavirus precautions.
The Ministry of Health also came under fire for convening mass recruitment for health workers that sparked a stampede in Mzuzu. Youth and Society executive director Charles Kajoloweka criticised the ministry for exposing the youth to the pandemic by overriding its ban on public gatherings.
The courts also froze government’s attempts to impose lockdown measures after some human rights defenders demanded special measures to cushion the poorest of the poor.
Chisoni warns against politicisation of coronavirus transmission, saying: “We all have had a silly share in politicising the response to the pandemic.
“Now, we have dedicated healthcare workers who feel cheated by the government. Who can do their hazardous work without risk allowance?”
He backs Ombudsman Martha Chizuma’s probe into allegations that some ex-ministers stashed allowances for Covid-19 response.
“Can ex-minister of health Jappie Mhango and his colleagues tell the nation what their priorities were in this fight? The new President must rise up to the occasion.
How do you approve millions for independence celebrations, but fail to provide risk allowances for health workers at Blantyre Emergency Treatment Unit and other isolation centres being closed because health workers feel short-changed.”
Chisoni says the breakdown has further been complicated by “heartless politicians” who tell lies instead of spreading correct information.
He asks critics of ambitious efforts to stop coronavirus spread: “How does it feel to see over 2 000 people contracting the virus and dying like chickens?”
Chisoni expects policymakers and human rights defenders to lead by example instead of fuelling confusion and misinformation.
“We heard the politicians telling the nation that all those early cases were fake. Some Malawians believed that misinformation. Really?”
Chisoni has a word for the nation fast sliding into a worse catastrophe.
He implores: “Fellow Malawians, we have a responsibility to love this nation. We call it stewardship—having a sense of responsibility towards our fellow humans and environment regardless of any differences.
“For so long, politicians and now a recent group of activists have tried hard to destroy this nation. We must responsibly stand out of the crowds and separate politics from real business. Now that, Covid 19 is biting harder, will the same guys come back and make a public apology to the nation?”
New President Lazarus Chakwera rallied the nation to strictly observe coronavirus regulations as a 100 percent lockdown would imperil many Malawians living hand to mouth.
But Chisoni faults lax handling of the pandemic and returnees from South Africa, the epicentre of the pandemic in southern Africa.
In May, 400 returnees fled from Kamuzu Stadium where they had been held without food, toilets, water and other essential.
He asks:”Who lets loose suspected patients at the stadium?
“Chakwera’s administration must quickly motivate healthcare workers and demonstrate the will to do more. If he can’t do it now, then the situation can only get worse. The old regime gave us a raw deal, but a health of Malawi is possible.
Chisoni has established a WhatsApp group where he shares his experience. He hopes that more survivors will share information and demystify the coronavirus disease.