As the country endures a new wave of Covid-19, health workers share their experiences from earlier in the pandemic and why vaccines are a crucial step towards ending the pandemic.
Unicef Malawi health specialist Steve Macheso is worried that the Covid-19 third wave is hitting Malawi hard.
“It’s stressing the health system, stressing the health workforce, and leading to serious disruption in the lives of people in the country,” he says.
Cases have surged across the country in recent weeks, particularly in Blantyre and Lilongwe cities. By late July, almost 50 000 cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed in the country.
Macheso says Malawi “saw the third wave coming”, giving the government and partners, including Unicef, a chance to ramp up preparedness.
“So we’re better off in terms of the oxygen supply situation, personal prevention equipment supplies and testing capabilities,” he states.
Yet, a rapidly rising positivity rate over the past weeks—from less than five percent in May to over 25 percent by the third week of July—underscores the nationwide challenge.
Even with additional supplies in place, some districts and health facilities are running short of testing kits and protective gear.
“[We’re] also having problems with supplies for treating comorbidities,” Macheso adds.
These issues pose a multifaceted threat to children, who have lost parents, had their education disrupted and been left more vulnerable to exploitation during the pandemic.
“Although the number of cases affecting children remains relatively low, the people dying from Covid have children, they have families,” Macheso says. “We’re seeing tremendous suffering and neglect among children and adolescents.”
Unicef has provided financial and technical support for Malawi’s response to the latest wave; including mobilising resources, building capacity among rapid response teams and providing supplies such as PPE, test kits, oxygen concentrators and ventilators. The United Nation’s children’s fund also supports the government in undertaking risk communication and community engagement activities.
Unicef, with funding from the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, has also supported the Ministry of Health in establishing an oxygen plant to ensure hospitals have the supplies they need to treat patients with severe Covid-19 cases.
Duncan Banda, a physiotherapist, knows all too well the urgency of ensuring adequate oxygen supplies. He was working at a Covid-19 field hospital in the basement of Bingu Stadium in Lilongwe when the facility ran out of oxygen cylinders. There were just four physiotherapists to help around 60 patients experiencing breathing difficulties.
“We had to reposition patients, do deep breathing techniques and intensive physiotherapy. We lost four patients in four hours that day,” Banda says.
Physiotherapy has played an important role in managing Covid-19 care, particularly for patients with breathing difficulties.
“We only admit those who are unable to breathe independently,” Banda says. “For those on machines, physiotherapy helps as we try to wean the patients off. Using chest physiotherapy techniques, we can train patients to breathe properly and return to normal without a machine. We help them breathe and expand their lungs.”
Unicef has also played a central role in the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, helping the government secure vaccines and assisting in their distribution.
The most recent vaccination drive ended on June 26 2021, when the country ran out of doses just as vaccine uptake started to improve.
Some 192 000 vaccines donated by the French Government arrived via the Covax facility on July 24 and more are expected this month.
Tamara Katuli, a health surveillance assistant, is one of those who have already received the vaccine.
“We were so afraid of Covid-19,” she says, recalling how she and her family felt in the early days of the pandemic. “But after getting vaccinated, we feel safer.”
By the end of June, around 385 000 people had received the first jab—an important achievement, but only about two percent of the population.
By July 25, Ministry of Health reported that only 43 165 people had been fully vaccinated with the recommended two doses.
Wellington Kaima, a health surveillance assistant at a health centre on the outskirts of Blantyre, urges more people to get vaccinated.
Says the community health worker: “The development of our country will be affected if the population is unhealthy.
“I am encouraging everyone to go to their nearest health centre and get vaccinated. Don’t hesitate; the vaccine is safe and effective. It is provided for free at vaccination centres.”—Unicef Malawi