Malawi has released a K2.4 billion plan to prepare for the coronavirus (Covid-19), an outbreak that has so far affected more than 114 000 people globally, of which over 80 are in Africa.
Lilongwe’s plan includes setting up a laboratory to test people for the virus, according to Health and Population Minister Jappie Mhango, who also chairs the special Cabinet committee on the disease that the World Health Organisation (WHO) says is a global emergency.
Speaking during a press briefing in Blantyre yesterday, Mhango assured Malawians of safety should the coronavirus outbreak hit the country, saying so far the country has not registered any confirmed cases.
He said government is working on establishing a local laboratory to test people for the virus as currently, samples are being sent to South Africa.
Said the Minister: “At the moment, Malawi has the means, but lacks the capacity to test the Covid-19. So, with support from the World Health Organisation, government will develop laboratory capacity to ensure that Covid-19 is tested right here in Malawi.”
Global public health experts worry that countries with rickety healthcare systems such as Malawi may not manage to contain the virus that has killed more than 4 000 people globally. At the beginning of the outbreak, only three African countries—Senegal, Nigeria and South Africa—had the capacity to test for the virus.
Today, thanks to capacity building initiatives by Africa Centre for Disease Control, 28 countries on the continent now have the capacity to detect the virus, but Malawi is not on the list.
Mhango explained that government is in talks with development partners such as the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID), which has since committed to provide 1.8 million pound sterling (about K1.7 billion) towards Covid-19 preparedness.
Other donor partners include United Nations International Children’s Fund (Unicef) and WHO.
The minister said a meeting the special committee held on Monday in Blantyre agreed that apart from airport screening, enforcement of the screening should also be done in all border posts with neighbouring Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania as South Africa has recorded seven cases as of last evening. South Africa is Malawi’s leading trading partner with high levels of migration and people-to-people relationship.
Mhango said: “The committee is very alert on coronavirus. We have instituted different precautionary measures such as screening coronavirus in all travellers arriving in the country through international airports, providing a mechanism for laboratory confirmation of the virus in those suspected of the infection, educating the masses of the disease and ensuring that hospitals have the capacity and drugs to manage coronavirus suspected patients among others.
“The activities seek to prevent coronavirus from being transmitted to Malawi and also prepare the country to handle any case should a coronavirus case be diagnosed.”
The committee chairperson reminded the public of the need to practice personal hygiene such as avoiding close contact with people who are sick and washing hands frequently with soap to prevent infection.
Meanwhile, government is following up for 14 days travellers from China, Italy, France, Germany, Italy and South Korea who were suspected of carrying coronavirus.
“So far, as of March 9, 2020, we had in total followed up 233 people. Out of which 111 are still under self-isolation and no person has been found with the disease,” said the minister.
The committee has since advised Malawians to avoid non-essential travel to affected countries until the outbreak is controlled.
He said Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development and Ministry of Health (MoH) officials are also expected to meet this week to review and finalise the contingency plan that government has developed in response to the threat posed by Covid-19.
“In addition, MoH in collaboration with the Ministry of Information, Civic Education and Communications Technology will step up awareness to ensure the public is aware of Covid-19, through both national and community media outlets,” the minister said.
On his part, Minister of Information, Civic Education and Communications Technology Mark Botomani said the special committee will provide oversight for cross-government initiatives on the Covid-19 threat.
Botomani, who is also in the special committee, said the committee is working in consultation with technical experts to provide necessary direction in the Covid-19 global crisis.
He further cautioned against misinformation, saying: “In this era of fake news, we need to avoid spreading unverified reports. The media needs to pass on facts and avoid causing panic.”
After the briefing, the special committee toured Chileka International Airport in Blantyre and Mwanza Border Post to appreciate the Covid-19 screening processes there.
Travellers are screened as they walk through the entrances at airports and border posts, where they are also required to wash their hands with chlorinated water.
On people who enter the country using uncharted routes, the committee said they will be working closely with security personnel, including police and local authorities, to apprehend them and get them screened by medical authorities.
Mhango expressed optimism that they will make progress as they did with the emergence of the Ebola outbreak when they involved both police and local authorities such as chiefs, which led to the closure of some man-made borders in the Northern Region.
With the first case of Covid-19 reported in December in Wuhan City, Huber Province of China, the infection has now spread to over 101 countries globally.