Out of Africa – Malawi

Disclosure: I love Africa and have a long history of involvement there. I first travelled to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya on business as early as 1979, lived in Johannesburg for five years in the 1980s and continued to travel occasionally for business and family purposes until a few years ago. So I watch African matters with interest, and am not at all surprised that Africa continues to lag the rest of the world in all matters, particularly Covid19.

I recently started to take a close interest in Malawi because I made a tiny project investment there. I read the newspapers, research on socio economic matters and look forward to the day I can visit. So I plan to report periodically on the country as a snapshot of life in Africa. As the project moves forward, I will report on it.

Malawi is totally landlocked, bordered by Zambia to the west, Tanzania to the north and northeast, and Mozambique to the east, south and southwest. The country was “discovered” by David Livingstone in 1859. As a result of his visit it was claimed by the British and in 1889 proclaimed a British protectorate. In 1907 the protectorate was named Nyasaland and remained under British control until 1964 when it became independent from British rule and renamed itself as Malawi. For 29 years the country remained a one party state under the control of its first president (Banda). In 1993 the country voted for a multi-party democracy.
Topographically, Malawi lies within the Great Rift Valley system. Lake Malawi, a body of water some 580 km long (!) and about 460 m above sea level, is the country’s most prominent physical feature. About 75% of the land surface is plateau between 750 m and 1,350 m above sea level. Highland elevations rise to over 3000 m and the lowest point is on the southern border where the Zambezi is at 37 m above sea level.

Today Malawi is one of the world’s least developed countries. The economy is dominated by agriculture and has a largely rural and rapidly growing population. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. About half of the population are below the poverty line, with 20% described as “extremely poor”. The country is heavily dependent upon outside aid. In 1993 the population was approximately 9 million. Today it is 19.5 million. There is a diverse population with numerous ethnic groups. There are two official languages including English. In the past there was periodic regional conflict perhaps triggered by ethnic divisions, but by 2008 this internal conflict had considerably diminished, and the idea of identifying with one’s Malawian nationality had emerged.

Against this background, Malawi has just the same challenges as the rest of the world. In this post I’ll talk a little about Covid19.
Covid19 first arrived in Malawi in April 2020 with cases imported from India, the UK and South Africa. In that month the president announced a 21 day lockdown, but the High Court barred the government from implementing. Among the arguments were that thousands of agriculture workers sold their produce in markets and had a highly precarious existence. A lockdown would cause extreme hardship. In the end no lockdown was used and the pandemic spread slowly during 2020. This was probably less to do with previous experience gained during the earlier SARS epidemic than the rural population spread.

But after being largely spared by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Malawi is now being swept by a new, fast-spreading wave of the disease that is quickly overwhelming the healthcare system. Medicine Sans Frontiers reported, “In the first few weeks of January 2021, the number of people confirmed with the disease has doubled every four to five days, and while the local capacity is already saturated, access to vaccines is likely a few months away. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) responded to a call by the health authorities in Blantyre, and launched emergency activities to tackle the exponential increase in the number of severe patients in the area.”

In October the Guardian reported a drastic rise in Malawi’s suicide rate linked to Covid economic downturn. Malawi is seeing a sharp rise in suicide rates this year, with some attributing it to the economic stresses of the Covid pandemic, noting that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with about half of the population below the poverty line, with 20% described as “extremely poor”. Malawi police service reports an increase of as much as 57% on the same period last year. Suicide mortality rate (per 100,000 population) in Malawi was reported at 3.7% in 2016 by the World Bank.

The country went into lockdown on 18 January, the first time since the pandemic began. By then Malawi had recorded 12,470 coronavirus cases and 314 deaths, with a 40% increase in infections in a month. There were 17380 new cases in January, raising the total number of confirmed cases to 23963. The death toll rose to 702. The number of recovered patients increased to 8615, leaving 14646 active cases at the end of the month. Among the fatalities were two Cabinet ministers. By March the deaths had risen to 1117.

In March, Malawi received the first shipment of Covid19 vaccine from Covax the international partnership between CEPI, Gavi, UNICEF and WHO. The COVAX Facility shipped 360,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from Serum Institute of India from Mumbai, India, as well as supporting equipment. However, in the second week of April, the Guardian reported that, more than 16,000 expired AstraZeneca Covid-19 doses are to be destroyed in Malawi as concerns over vaccine hesitancy increase. The vaccines are among 102,000 doses donated by the African Union (AU) to the Malawian government last month. Currently, about 230,000 doses have been administered, enough to vaccinate nearly 1% of the population. As well as doses from the AU, the country received more than 400,000 AstraZeneca shots from Covax and the Indian government.

Initially, Malawians responded to the vaccine enthusiastically, with long queues at vaccination points and hospitals since the rollout began last month. But numbers have dropped off. It was reported that people were also spreading messages that they will receive the expired vaccine, causing damage to the effort of the government. George Jobe, executive director of Malawi Health Equity Network, expressed concern. “In the country, especially in rural areas, people are still clinging to the negative information about the vaccine. We should remember that there has been misinformation on the vaccine, and now we’ve experienced the danger of such messages.”

And I read in the Nyasa Times today that the Parliament’s PAC (presumably public accounts committee) is grilling officials over possible misappropriation of Covid19 funds! Senior officials from DODMA Department of Disaster Management Affairs were grilled on how about 50% of K6.2 billion (that’s about €6.8m) went towards “allowances” including conferences, allowances, stationery etc. I must admit this type of report doesn’t reduce possible prejudice about corruption in African countries.

In my next post on this topic I will continue tracking Covid19 matters but focus on Climate Change, which you might imagine may have a dramatic impact on this poor country.

Malawi has administered at least 229,220 doses of COVID vaccines so far. Assuming every person needs 2 doses, that’s enough to have vaccinated about 0.6% of the country’s population. (Reuters)


Admiration nation Which is The Economist’s country of the year?

. . . this year’s prize goes to a country in southern Africa. Democracy and respect for human rights regressed in 80 countries between the start of the pandemic and September, reckons Freedom House, a think-tank. The only place where they improved was Malawi.
To appreciate its progress, consider what came before. In 2012 a president died, his death was covered up and his corpse flown to South Africa for “medical treatment”, to buy time so that his brother could take over. That brother, Peter Mutharika, failed to grab power then but was elected two years later and ran for re-election. The vote-count was rigged with correction fluid on the tally sheets. Foreign observers cynically approved it anyway. Malawians launched mass protests against the “Tipp-Ex election”. Malawian judges turned down suitcases of bribes and annulled it. A fair re-run in June booted out Mr Mutharika and installed the people’s choice, Lazarus Chakwera. Malawi is still poor, but its people are citizens, not subjects. For reviving democracy in an authoritarian region, it is our country of the year.

About davidsprott

Artist, writer, veteran IT professional
This entry was posted in Africa, Covid19, Malawi, Technology and Society, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Out of Africa – Malawi

  1. annieasksyou says:

    So interesting to get this in-depth look at a country I probably won’t be able to experience firsthand. Thanks very much, David!

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