For anyone with access to the mainstream media in Malawi, the first four months of 2020 have been action-packed. Not a single moment has passed without major events - ranging from politics, to law, to public health - that have left many of us mouths agape with bewilderment and anxiety about what lies ahead. By the end of February, it was clear a new, common enemy, a fast-spreading Covid-19 pandemic, was devastating the world, and wasn't going to spare Malawi. The media has been on a reporting high ever since. And in its wake, humour circulating on social media has accompanied us in our anxieties, keeping us strong as we await the unknown.
By the time three cases were confirmed in April, it was clear that we were heading for a national lock down we had only read about in the news. Funny memes and GIFs on our smartphone screens aside, it's the awakening to the incapabilities of our leaders to protect a fragile nation that cut deep into our cores and left us wanting of answers to the political leanings that were taking precedence over the emerging shared need. The failure to having a handle on the Covid-19 outbreak can be easily added as yet another failure the current Government of Malawi can add to its legacy.
Some may agree how the emergence of the novel coronavirus, or SARS-COV-2, has brought the conversation around the gaps between the rich and the poor, the global North and the global South, men and women, (unpaid) care work and decent employment, policy measures inconsistent with our reality, and indeed, politics and humanity, to the table. To start, it's quite clear to me - and many others - that Covid-19 has received this much attention for its rare sarcasm to ravage rich nations worse than many global crises, some combined, have done before. It has even caused flight of development resources from poor countries as donors are hard pressed to concentrate on domestic economics and healthcare troubles the pandemic has caused. Interestingly, it's brought to light how the eradication of diseases that have an African or poverty character like malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS and Ebola continues to struggle. Simply because these are not really a Western problem.
Malawi's Covid-19 lock down measures were to go into effect on Saturday, April 18th, 2020. However, nationwide protests and a High Court injunction have been persuasive enough to delay their entering into effect by a week. The point of the protests has been fundamental. Malawian citizens have been begging the country's leadership to see them as people who do not enjoy the same luxuries the rich few, with compromised ability to stock up and stay indoors, working online thanks to ever-flowing WiFi, electricity, water, nutrition, security and safety. The affluent in Malawi know they will be at the forefront if and when they need medical attention. The protest shouted loudly that the majority of Malawians can't afford the copy-and-paste lock down measures the Government put in place.
In Malawi, a lock down may easily counteract the intended safety and security of people. Especially when there is lack of political will. With measures that seem to inequitably favour businesses, which in turn tend to favour politicians, it's no secret that our leaders continue to erroneously pander to the needs of the few. Under a pandemic that knows no physical nor wealth boundaries, our leaders forget they won't be able to fly to foreign hospitals this time around. They are well aware of the status of our health system.
As late as in the 2018/19 Fiscal Year, Malawi's spending on health was a paltry 9.8% of the total public budget, still far from the requirement of 15% as per the Abuja Declaration that Malawi signed in 2001. It comes as no surprise that we often face missing and inadequate medicines and medical supplies, our Central Medical Stores Trust experiences more breaches in a week than a corrupt traffic officer is involved in bribery for an entire lifetime. And according to UNICEF (2018 data), our country of 18 million souls has only 558 medical doctors, 1,306 medical officers and 990 nurses (see page 3). It doesn't help when a majority of this scarce resource works under precarious conditions and participates in an industrial strike. With this small health sector reality, where will our round-bellied elites go should they fall sick?
And what of the frequently marginalized groups? These include women, people living with HIV and AIDS, people living with albinism, people living with disability, members of the LGBTQI community and the poor. The Government and the Malawian society have systematically refused for years on end now to acknowledge the plight of persons in these groups, neglecting their specific needs despite the proven fact that they make up a majority of the country’s population and economy and the potential roles they may play in contributing to its prosperity.
Now, it would be nice to imagine a geopolitical situation where the global North actually cared enough about the continent of Africa. The reality that it really doesn't means our stemming the spread of Covid-19 is compounded by even thinner wallets and scanty human resources that can equip us well to actually fight. To the majority of Malawians, however, the classist hierarchies of our societies mean this lock down will bear more detrimental implications than to those with resources.
There is a movie titled "2012", which depicts the catastrophic end to everyday civilization, and in that movie are scenes where the rich are offered a package of sorts to buy seats in a modern-day Noah‘s arc that safeguards them and their wealth from perishing while the poor were left to wander about. Our current lock down can be likened to scenes in this movie, because the fact that people will have to stock up their pantries for nearly a month is a reality only the rich can afford to live. In addition to that, as is the unfortunate marginalization and corruption tendencies of service providers, the wealthy will be prioritized when urgent healthcare is needed and provided.
The lock down measures also cater to those who can afford to work from home, which in these modern times requires active internet access, clearly not Malawi‘s strongest trait. What about those whose financial and economic lives are strictly hand-to-mouth? Is there a Governmental fund being offered to ensure they survive this outbreak, or are they left to themselves to figure it out?
What about the dissemination of information on this virus? While funding has been made to the various radio and TV stations, rural and remote populations, fueled by pre-existing poverty, may still lag behind in accessing any information relating to precautionary measures. Furthermore, a majority of urban middle- and upper-class households are dependent on domestic workers for childcare and maintenance of their homesteads. These workers come from rural areas where poverty is widespread. What does a 21-day quarantine look like for them?
My point here is that, if the classist nature of our Malawian society wasn't clear enough before, Covid-19 is surely crystallizing it into perspective now. The normalization of the missing political will is apparent now and the desperate need for a government that cares for its people’s needs couldn't be louder and clearer.
But perhaps we should focus on the positives. In spite of the political will that's missing, poverty and the lack of infrastructure and systems that stand in the way of a textbook Covid-19 response, we can take advantage of some locally-crafted solutions. Already, students from the Polytechnic, College of Medicine and Chancellor College are fabricating ventilators, hand sanitizers and more. These acts transcend politics and the structural bottlenecks leaders may create.
There is hope.