COVID-19: Malawi, locked down in poverty

UPDATE: Since this article was published, the Malawi judiciary issued an injunction postponing the lockdown for seven days pending a full hearing. The prospect of a lockdown is still a real challenge for countries like Malawi as this article highlights.


Malawi confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on 2nd April 2020. By this point it was just one of a handful of countries worldwide not to have been struck by the disease. However, as a landlocked nation with porous borders and one of the poorest countries in the world the concern was that the virus would arrive without being noticed.

The first case was confirmed along with two others from the same household. While only one person had travelled from outside the country the others contracted the virus locally. While many of Malawi’s current cases relate to international travel, there is now established local transmission and a concern that sufficient quarantine practices are not being followed.

Tragically, Malawi recorded its first coronavirus-related death just 5 days after confirming its first case. Malawi’s healthcare system is not equipped to deal with a widespread outbreak and the Malawi government estimate suggests up to 50,000 deaths unless the spread of the virus is curbed and the healthcare response is improved.

Current situation

The Malawi Ministry of Health’s last briefing (15th April) confirmed that there were 16 confirmed cases in the country, including two deaths. Cases are confirmed in Lilongwe, Blantyre, Nkhotakota and Chikwawa.

Efforts are being made, with local and international support, to raise awareness, increase prevention initiatives and dramatically scale-up health services. However, this virus has stretched developed healthcare systems and tested the resolve of better resourced governments.

A health and social crisis

As discussed in our previous blog – ‘Coronavirus: the great leveller?’ – the basic requirements of virus prevention are themselves a huge test for countries like Malawi.

Malawi’s government has announced that the country will commence a 21-day lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus. However, while Malawians are fearful of the impact of coronavirus, this news is hard for them to swallow economically and politically.

In Malawi, more than 9 million people live below the poverty line and the majority of the population relies on small scale agriculture, small businesses and piece work for income. A large-scale lockdown, without at least food support, will devastate families who rely on work in the morning to eat in the afternoon.

The lockdown will also be a test of Malawi’s fragile political situation. Earlier this year the result of the 2019 presidential election was overturned in court. While the legal wrangles are ongoing, many people will be frustrated by further delays to the re-running of the election and will not trust the political efforts to stop the disease. This will mean a return to mass protests and will be a grave challenge to virus prevention strategies.

It’s a reminder that coronavirus is not simply a health crisis, but a social crisis, particularly for countries where existing security, rights and freedoms are already fragile.

EMMS International Partner Response

EMMS International works in the Southern, Central and Northern Regions of Malawi through partner mission hospitals and healthcare organisations. The largest active project is the Chifundo project which is improving access to palliative care in rural areas. While the training activities related to the Chifundo project have stopped, visits to palliative care patients in their homes continue.

All facilities are gathering hygiene items such as buckets, goggles, liquid soap and hand sanitiser to keep their staff, patients and communities safe. Through their community projects, they are able to encourage and equip people to do what they can to protect themselves.

The dedicated services of mission hospitals like Mulanje Mission Hospital, Nkhoma Mission Hospital and David Gordon Memorial Hospital over many decades mean that they are trusted establishments to which people turn in a crisis. Supporting the emergency appeal will provide them with some of the essential supplies they will need in the frontline of the fight against coronavirus.

Prayer Points

Please pray for:

  1. Frontline healthcare facilities, including the mission hospitals. That they would have the resources and strength they need for their vital role in protecting and saving lives;

  2. The people of Malawi, that they would be free from fear and know God’s strength and protection;

  3. The church in Malawi, that it will find new ways to maintain fellowship and be able to respond to the practical needs of its communities;

  4. The Government of Malawi, that it will implement the necessary protections in consultation with communities and that it will do all it can to protect the most vulnerable people from the effects of both the virus and the proposed lockdown.

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