Around 2pm on a Saturday afternoon, a plane carrying Covid-19 vaccine doses lands at Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe.
Minister of Health Khumbize Kandodo-Chiponda and other senior government officials, acting British High Commissioner Fiona Ritchie and Unicef Malawi’s chief of health Tedla Damte are on the tarmac to receive this latest consignment delivered from the UK Government via the Covid facility.
By the time this new consignment of vaccines arrived on August 14, only about 261 000 people had been fully vaccinated. The need is apparent.
“We are excited to receive yet another consignment of Covid-19 vaccines. This is timely,” said Chiponda.
Devil in details
About 30 kilometres away from the airport, at the country’s national vaccine store, Mphatso Mtenje’s day is about to get busy. He is the cold chain manager, who ensures that all vaccines are stored and delivered safely to their destinations once they arrive in Malawi.
As the vaccines are being transported to the vaccine store for onward distribution, Mtenje and his team are ready with distribution instructions. Their goal is to dispatch the vaccines to public hospitals and health centres that Saturday night so that early Monday morning, eligible Malawians can get their jab.
“When the vaccines arrived, I checked the documents to confirm that what we have received is indeed the consignment we were expecting. After that, I verified that the vaccines arrived safely, at optimum temperature,” he explains.
There is a lot happening in the vaccine store. Mtenje and his team are in the cold room unpacking, sorting, counting and confirming vaccines for Malawi’s 28 districts and repacking them safely in the cold boxes which have been conditioned in advance.
Mtenje says: “We use the cold boxes to transport small shipments at the right temperature, in this case between the range of two and eight degrees Celsius. The temperature must be right to safeguard the potency of the vaccines.
“Unicef helps us to achieve this by procuring and installing cold rooms at the national vaccine store and refrigerators for the districts, including solar-powered refrigerators in remote health facilities that are not connected to the power grid.”
The cold rooms and refrigerators were procured with funding from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
As more vaccines arrive from the US, UK and French Governments via Covax, Mtenje and his team ensure the doses allocated to each district are transported safely and quickly across Malawi.
Through the Covax facility, Unicef is working with manufacturers and partners on the procurement of Covid-19 vaccine doses, as well as managing freight, logistics and storage. Every week thousands of Covid-19 doses are being transported from manufacturers and from Unicef’s warehouse in Copenhagen— the largest humanitarian warehouse—to countries in need.
Damte, from Unicef, says this work is important for children.
He says: “Covid-19 has disrupted essential services, including children’s education. It is important to work together to end the pandemic and give children the education, healthcare and protection they need consistently.”
To the last mile
At Nathenje Health Centre in Lilongwe, community health worker Golden Chizungu is pleased with the number of people showing up to get the vaccine. He says things were slow in the beginning because there was a lot of misinformation around Covid-19 and its-19 vaccines.
“We engaged the communities about the pandemic, and the efficacy of the vaccine and more people started coming. After we ran out of vaccines in June, many people were worried about when they would get the next dose. Now that we have received another consignment, the turn out is much better than before with some returning for their second dose and others getting the first dose,” explains the health surveillance assistant.
Maggie Nyamulani used to work for a family of five in Lilongwe. She cooked, cleaned and managed other chores commuting from her home three kilometres away. When Covid-19 hit, she was laid off as her daily commute put her and her employer at risk of Covid-19. This job was Nyamulani’s only source of income, so life has been tough.
“I just got the vaccine, and I encourage others to get it. As more people get the vaccine, our lives can return to normal so that I can get back to work and take care of my children,” she says.