Clinician Thokozani Mphatso is terrified of going to Mpatsa Health Centre which he heads.
The public facility near Phalombe Boma is where the 34-year-old meets scores of patients seeking medical treatment without fear of catching any infections.
However, the clinician-in-charge now protects himself and treats every patient as a potential spreader of coronavirus.
In June, he became the first health worker in the southwestern district to catch the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) that has claimed 175 lives from the country’s 5 566 confirmed cases. Fortunately, he is among almost 3 160 Malawians who have recovered after self-isolation.
He looks back: “When I was at Phalombe Health Centre, I helped an outpatient who didn’t present with any Covid-19 symptoms.
“Then it wasn’t mandatory to wear face masks. I took down notes and prescribed treatment for what looked like malaria. Two days later, the patient started coughing and experiencing high fever, headaches and shortness of breath. He later tested positive to Covid-19.”
Mphatso was diagnosed with the virus days later. He spent 14 days in a bedroom where his pregnant wife could not step.
He recalls: “Throughout, I didn’t experience any coronavirus sign or symptom. My wife was very supportive as we took necessary measures to protect our lives and our unborn child. We stopped using the same plates, cups, spoons, toilet and bathrooms.”
Mphatso personifies the risk faced by health workers as rising community transmission increases demands for personal protective equipment (PPE) in medical settings. The frontline workforce runs a high risk of catching coronavirus from patients they help unaware of who they may have come into contact with before dropping in.
Confirmed coronavirus cases among health workers have left them ostracised in their communities, public transport and workplaces.
And Mphatso says he endured discrimination even from workmates despite showing no sign of infection.
He states: “Before the results were out, news spread fast that I had coronavirus. I was shocked because I didn’t show any signs. My colleagues were supposed to know better.
“However, my experience shows that we all need to protect ourselves in the course of helping our clients. The risk is high when we don’t see the urgency to wear PPE because the patient does not show any sign. That’s when the risk of infection is high.”
Recently, Mpatsa received soap, hand-washing kits, face masks and other props from Oxfam in Malawi.
According to country manager Lingalireni Mihowa, Oxfam response partly targets constrained health centres in constituencies represented by women legislators in Phalombe, Machinga, Balaka, Lilongwe, Thyolo, Dowa and Nkhata Bay.
She explains: “People come to health centres to seek treatment. We don’t want anyone to get Covid-19 in these settings. We want to help them prepare and prevent more infections.
“Our entry point was the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, which identified the most needy constituencies to receive the PPE and hygiene supplies. This comes in response to government’s request so that health workers can have confidence and safety when doing their work.”
Phalombe South legislator Mary Mpanga urges government and its partners to safeguard health workers for the good of all Malawians, especially the rural majority left behind.
“If we protect health workers, we protect everyone who depends on them. If we lose them, we lose our frontline soldiers as the war rages,” she says.
Mphatso and his colleagues serve a population of 39 300, seeing almost 400 patients daily.
Mphatso says: “We need to protect ourselves always. Covid-19 is not just a disease, but a big crisis.
“Now everyone is a potential carrier of the virus; some don’t show any sign. Small steps like wearing face masks, keeping a safe distance and frequently washing hands with soap make a big difference.”