Covax deliveries have ramped up in Malawi, giving local health workers and officials hope against the pandemic, writes freelance journalist JOSEPHINE CHINELE.
There was panic in June 2021 when Malawi experienced a Covid-19 vaccine stock-out amid high demand.
This was also at the peak of a surge in Covid-19 infections and deaths and the Delta variant was causing fear.
City dwellers were driving to nearby districts or clinics on the outskirts of towns just to get the jab.
“I’m diabetic and I was scared that I hadn’t completed the vaccine dosage,” says Nikita Chauma, a Blantyre-based woman who received her second jab from the first consignment of the restock batch. “I took the first shot of AstraZeneca, but couldn’t take my second jab because there was no stock. I now feel safe that I received my second dose.”
The resumption of Covid-19 vaccinations on July 26 was a big relief. This was after the UK, the US and Sweden, among others, donated vaccines to Malawi through the Covax facility backed by the World Health Organisation.
Priscabel Kalumbi, nursing officer at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, says she was pleased to have received the vaccine during the third wave.
“The vaccine gave me the confidence to freely interact with patients while still observing the basic Covid-19 preventive measures,” she proudly recalls.
Kalumbi says that, since the onset of Covid-19, there has been fear of contracting the virus in the line of duty among most frontline workers, who have seen colleagues falling sick and others dying of the disease.
“We are in a resource-limited setup, where personal protective equipment isn’t enough. We are, at times, forced to sanitise and recycle things like face shields. This – and other limitations – has put us at a greater risk of infection. The Covid-19 vaccine has given me an opportunity to confidently serve patients,” she says.
Communications lead for Theatre for a Change Malawi, Henry Kambuzuma, says it would have taken Malawi years to be protected from the Covid-19 vaccine if not for the Covax facility.
“It’s commendable that government has been transparent whenever the country has received vaccines via Covax or other vaccine consignments. We couldn’t afford to buy these vaccines on our own. This facility has really assisted in protecting our most vulnerable populations from Covid-19,” he notes.
Kambuzuma, however, highlights various logistical challenges, such as long distances to vaccine centres and non-provision of vaccines at some health facilities during holidays and weekends, as some of the things that need to be addressed.
He adds that, sometimes, the awareness campaigns are not clear regarding the type of vaccines available. For instance, due to the long distance some people must travel, they would want to have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as it is only one jab.
“They may be forced to take the AstraZeneca vaccine because that’s the only type available at the time. People just take what is available because the providers usually don’t have information on when the preferred vaccine will be next available.”
Health and Rights Education Programme executive director Maziko Matemba observes that despite the fact that the developed world not having delivered what it committed; the Covax facility has had a great impact in Malawi since the Covid-19 vaccination campaign launch in March 2021.
“The facility’s vaccines have assisted in reducing the spread of the virus to the most affected and at-risk segments of our population, although there have been some challenges on the ground,” he says.
Regardless of some of the difficulties, Matemba feels the Ministry of Health has put in the necessary Covid-19 management structures and that the Expanded Programme on Immunisation’s (EPI) handling has been systematic, using existing operational structures and supply chains.
EPI programme manager Dr Mike Chisema says confidently that the Covax facility has given Malawi the bargaining power for the type of affordable vaccines the country needs.
“We have managed to get vaccines at a reduced price through Covax. The facility committed to provide 20 percent of Malawi’s national target. We are now at six percent,” he says, adding, “There is clear evidence that a vaccinated person doesn’t develop severe disease and, therefore, the facility has protected Malawians at high risk from Covid-19 mortalities.” As of December 8 2021, Malawi had a cumulative total of 62 053 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 2 307 deaths. On the same date, a total of 622 716 people had been fully vaccinated.—Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.