Within a two-week period, President Peter Mutharika has addressed the nation three times to convey what’s on government’s mind regarding the evolving Covid-19 crisis. It wasn’t too long after he declared Malawi a “State of Disaster” country (20 March 2020) that he was to announce the first ‘confirmed’ cases in Area 9 in Lilongwe City (on 2 April 2020). On 4 April 2020, he was already making his third address on the growing crisis and introducing more measures after a fourth case was announced. This time, the coronavirus had infected a person in Blantyre City. As expected of any leader, on Saturday he rose to the occasion. Good job!
There’s much to applaud in Mr. Mutharika’s address, which has clearly inspired confidence in many about a government that’s beginning to seriously take its end of the responsibility spectrum. However, if it were simply about how well the government is allegedly doing, then sending our readers back to reading the President’s speech would suffice. It’s the unmentioned or partially addressed policy issues that bring us here. Because there’re still a few issues.
Mr. Mutharika’s speech did not mention the word “treatment” outside of “water treatment”. He was mum on the measures for treatment of Covid-19 cases in the event of a calamitous spread. At the time of the address, the Area 9 and Blantyre cases were being compounded by an announcement by the Kenyan government where among the travelers who tested positive for coronavirus on entry in Kenya, one had been traced to Malawi. The latter has been a wake-up call on the possibility that we have more cases that are probably on the loose in the country than we’d love to admit. At some point, Covid-19 cases will have to make their way into health facilities, making the question of treatment ever more critical. The silence on treatment in the President’s address puts all of us in the dark about government preparedness for the medications and medical equipment needed, especially in public facilities, which serve the larger population.
To his credit, the President announced 2,000 additional health workers who must be recruited forthwith and that risk allowances of healthcare personnel will be hiked. These are reasonable measures, but which can only remain as good as the agility of the equipment and gear they will use in fighting the disease in the hospitals and health centers across the country. Our healthcare system is rugged and tired, and it’s so lean that our national supply of Intensive Care Units (ICUs) will be in jeopardy the moment even 50 Covid-19 cases need serious hospitalization. The current estimate puts our ICU total at roughly 25 and that of ventilators at 7. That’s nationwide. Rich countries, which have much larger human and institutional capacities for ICU treatment, are struggling to hospitalize cases and are forced to make unfathomable choices of which among their patients to hook to a ventilator and who should be allowed to cross over to the life after. It’s not too hard to forecast that many of our sick may well be buried alive.
Mr. Mutharika’s address hints on very little being prepared to treat patients. It highlights our limited abilities to humanly fight as any poor country as ours could in the face of a tight situation as this crisis. Yet, knowing the extent of our challenges creates opportunities for those still in a position to assist to do so. A case in point is how Taiwan recently announced it will send medical aid of 100 million protective face masks to Western countries hit by Covid-19 such as the United States, Italy and others, which has been made possible because someone has measured their need. Of course, our chasing of the Taiwanese from Malawi during Bingu wa Mutharika’s regime in 2008 (you probably remember Patricia “Akweni” Kaliati being vocal about this at the time) was embarrassing enough we would have to swallow our own vomit to seek their aid today. It’s also unlikely they’ve forgotten that a Democratic Progressive Party government was in power then. Yet, knowing our needs clearly makes it easy for any other philanthropist, even local ones, to step in.
Malawians are also entitled to rant about a few other things the President did mention.
Other than including us all in the bracket of vulnerability to the novel coronavirus, the focus of the president seemed a little less reflective of the plight of the regular Malawian and a little too skewed towards the needs of the private sector. Perhaps a nice place to pick up the baton is Dr. Thandie M. Hara’s article in the 5 April 2020 Nation on Sunday, which makes the case for locally-oriented solution, some of which the president’s address has responded to. Neglecting the direct health needs of regular folk – primary of which are testing and treatment, after taking care of preventive measures – is presumptuous of the logic that solving cashflow arithmetic for the private sector will have been comprehensive enough in dealing with the totality of the crisis.
A private sector solution needs to be realistically responsive to the way our Malawian markets actually function. Here, we make a small caveat on Ms. Hara’s estimation of the fact that we won’t be able to keep everyone off the streets and off work as it’s only by going out to seek employment or sell something at a market that they may even get to feed their children that day. This assumes our curve will flatten and/or even drop before things take a turn for the worst. It actually might not. The fact that our small businesses have little to no protection against Covid-19 integrated in their operations means many of them will have to shut down to prevent further spread. Should the spread get out of hand, even more people will have to be grounded, and the ADMARC solution Mr. Mutharika proposes could be instrumental in food and resource redistribution when things get tight. This assumes ADMARC will, for the first time in a really long time, have the manners to stay in lane.
The President pleaded, “prevention is wiser than cure.” This is true. But in a country where not everyone can afford a face mask or hears the term “hand sanitizer” for the first time in 2020, effective prevention for Covid-19, as it worsens, requires people to stay at home. If they’re home, they won’t access basic needs that markets offer. If they’re grounded, they won’t be able to earn an income that would enable market access.
What’s worse, Mr. President, is the mere fact that if entrepreneurs won’t leave the house to sell at the market, there won’t be a market to exchange anything at all. And the heavy inclination to MSMEs will have yielded something. But, mostly, it will have yielded us nothing.
Market solutions must complement the strict preventive measures you’re putting in place. They must reach everyone, including loan moratoria that extend to the regular Malawian who borrowed. But they must be implemented with a strong case for treatment.
Because, Mr. President, without treatment, many that could have supported our economy could perish and you may wind up with no economy to save.