/ 15 February 2021

Malawi citizens buy urgently needed, basic Covid medical equipment

Malawi Health Virus
Under-resourced: Medical personnel prepare for another shift at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi. (Amos Gumulira/AFP)

Last year, the pandemic took a backseat to politics in Malawi. The nation was in crisis following the disputed election results of 2019, with protesters taking to the streets every week to demand another vote. A desire for change gripped the nation, and nothing else mattered.

With tens of thousands of people regularly gathering at demonstrations, health experts were worried that Malawi — with its chronically under-resourced and under-staffed hospitals — was totally unprepared for Covid-19. The government was also concerned: leaked minutes from the government’s Drugs and Medical Working Group from March 2020, seen by the Mail & Guardian, show that the situation was already so grave that a declaration of a national emergency was being considered.

The pandemic became politicised in unexpected ways. Keen to avoid a postponement, the opposition played down the threat in a manner that now — after attaining power — is coming back to haunt them. The government of former president Peter Mutharika tried and failed to use Covid-19 as an excuse to halt the vote. Its attempt to impose a lockdown was thrown out by the courts, as few provisions had been put in place to lessen the lockdown’s socioeconomic impact.

Elections went ahead, and the opposition won comfortably. President Lazarus Chakwera is not playing down the threat anymore. Last month, he declared a state of national disaster and announced restrictive measures: closing schools,  banning large gatherings and instituting an overnight curfew.

By Wednesday, the country of 18.6-million people had recorded 27 772 cases of Covid-19, with 883 deaths. The virus has struck down two cabinet ministers; five members of parliament; renowned academics; arguably the country’s finest musical talent, Wambali Mkandawire; and both young and old. Overwhelmed hospitals are struggling to access oxygen cylinders and the pressure regulators to administer them.

Enter Stanley Onjezani Kenani, a poet and writer who has been short-listed twice for the Caine Prize. He told the M&G: “I was deeply shocked when Paul Msoma, a friend, wrote on Facebook that at Kamuzu Central Hospital [Malawi’s biggest referral hospital], where he was hospitalised for Covid, they had oxygen but no pressure regulators. Each regulator cost 223 000 kwacha ($288). Friends ran around to buy the pressure regulator for Paul. Unfortunately, we still lost him.”

Kenani said: “This made me think of doing something. How many people out there were in Paul Msoma’s situation but had no one to turn to?” 

To solve this problem, he set up the Covid Response Private Citizens initiative, designed to raise funds to purchase the supplies necessary to combat Covid-19. As of last week, the fund had raised $170 000, and more money keeps pouring in.

Donations have come from grieving families, cabinet ministers, Malawians in the diaspora, and even from rural villages, where Covid is sometimes dismissed as a hoax. Those who do not have much to give have touched Kenani the most. “A woman nursing her sick husband in Blantyre sent us 5 000 kwacha ($6.50). A woman who had just lost her brother sent us 75 000 kwacha ($97).”

The initiative has raised so much money that it has had to hire auditors, and has made Kenani a household name in Malawi. Even Chakwera has praised him. But analysts have pointed out that private citizens shouldn’t have to raise money for basic medical supplies.

“We have a situation that requires urgent action but the procurement system is marred with various abuses. You cut out the bureaucratic issues when you deal with the private citizens. There is a case for value for money. You will buy more through the private initiative than when you use government channels. A lot of money is spent [by the government] on things that will not directly save lives,” said Boniface Dulani, lead researcher for the Institute for Public Opinion and Research.

Underlining his point, this week the director of public prosecutions ordered the police to investigate various public officials alleged to have abused Covid-19 funds in both the previous and current administrations. Meanwhile, as the Covid-19 case count rises, so do donations into the Covid Response Private Citizens fund.