Blantyre is one of the worst-affected hotspots of Malawi’s second wave of Covid-19.
In January, doctors, clinicians, nurses and laboratory technicians at Kameza, the city’s emergency treatment unit (ETU), served winding queues of up to 300 people, anxiously waiting to be swabbed for signs of the coronavirus disease.
The situation was overwhelming and even risky when the ETU lacked adequate water supply.
For the 15 health workers and support staff deployed to the emergency centre, there is no time to rest.
Rose Kajawo, 42, is one of the unsung heroes at this high-risk centre, located nearly three kilometres from her home.
She arrives at the centre at around 7am, almost three hours before health workers check in, and usually knocks off around 5pm, almost half an hour later than most civil servants. Her job involves cleaning all rooms at the ETU.
“After dusting and mopping the rooms, corridors and open spaces, I disinfect chairs, doors, walls and places where people who cannot stand in the sun sit while awaiting coronavirus testing. All this requires water,” says Kajawo.
Until recently, the ETU’s water and electricity supply were constantly being disrupted, making it difficult to prevent the spread of infection.
But thanks to Unicef, with funding from UK Aid, the ETU’s facilities have constant water supply, making Kajawo’s work a little easier.
The upgrade included the construction of two flush toilet blocks and a solar-powered water system complete with three handwashing stands with liquid soap dispensers.
“Water, sanitation and hygiene have become trusted weapons in the war on Covid-19,” Kajawo explains. “Frontline workers like myself and our clients now wash our hands regularly with soap so we don’t contaminate any frequently touched surfaces such as walls, doors, doorknobs, chairs and beds.”
Kajawo is certain that hand hygiene and sanitary settings help to disrupt coronavirus transmission, ensuring that people who visit the centre get medical tests—not infections.
“When I leave the centre, the health workers, our clients and I rest assured that we have practised the necessary measures to prevent coronavirus infections, which has disrupted every aspect of life. We go home happy, certain that we won’t infect our beloved families, including children, or leave them without a breadwinner,” she says.
Rose has five children who she calls “almost everything” to her.
“When I think about them, I feel duty-bound to take all necessary steps to stay safe. They need my support to achieve their dreams,” she says.
However, Kajawo, like frontline workers, is constantly exposed to Covid-19 in her line of duty. She takes the swab test every 14 days.
Penjani Chunda, who is coordinating the Covid-19 response at the ETU and the rest of Blantyre, says that without adequate water, sanitation and hygiene, health workers used to work in fear.
He says: “Previously, we had intermittent water and electricity supply, which was a huge challenge. The solar-powered water supply system has given us constant water and electricity both indoors and outdoors.
“It has enhanced sanitation and hand hygiene, which are pivotal to Covid-19 prevention. Since the start of the pandemic, no health workers at this isolation centre have been diagnosed with Covid-19.”
The solar panels convert sunlight into electricity which pumps groundwater into four 5,000-litre tanks and provide clean and reliable energy to light the centre amid the frequent blackouts. With uninterrupted water and electricity in the isolation rooms as well as the toilet blocks and shower rooms, critical patients can be admitted to the 10 rooms without any sanitation and hygiene concerns.
“The dedication of frontline health workers personifies our calling to save lives, but we also have to protect ourselves. If we protect ourselves, we protect our nation, our spouses, our children and everyone who depends on us.
“Every day, we risk getting Covid-19 infections from the people we serve. Inwardly, we tell ourselves that we could be next on the death list as we have already lost our fellow health workers in Blantyre and beyond, but this does not deter us from working hard to save lives. Basics like water, sanitation and hygiene make our job easier and safe for everyone,” Chunda explains.
As the second wave wanes, the centre now receives just 10 to 50 Covid-19 suspects a day. The health workers at the ETU are happy to see the back of the deadlier spate, which forced the government to turn a presidential palace and sports venues into emergency isolation centres.