UN: COVID-19 impact could be “disastrously high” in Malawi

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A young local girl, dressed in traditional clothing, washes her hands and drinks water from a borehole, in Nsanje District, southern Malawi. On the countryside of Malawi, people often have to walk long distances to get water from the nearest pump.
A young local girl, dressed in traditional clothing, washes her hands and drinks water from a borehole, in Nsanje District, southern Malawi. On the countryside of Malawi, people often have to walk long distances to get water from the nearest pump.

In Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, with a fragile health system, the United Nations is bracing for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which, it is feared, could be severe, UN News reported on Saturday.

“COVID-19 is known to be particularly dangerous for those with underlying health conditions and, in the African Great Lakes nation, a significant proportion of the population fall into that vulnerable category,” it said.

Around one million adults are living with HIV/AIDS, and approximately the same number of children have been orphaned by the disease. Many others are suffering from a range of infectious diseases, such as hepatitis A, malaria, rabies, schistosomiasis (a disease carried by freshwater snails), and typhoid.

Maria Jose Torres is UN resident coordinator in Malawi, the senior UN development official there. She warned that COVID-19 could have a disastrously high toll: “Even a fairly low number of cases could overwhelm the health system, cause food shortages, and reverse the path of progress the country has been on in recent years.”

Torres said that a “systematic approach” is needed to avoid that scenario. “We’ve got to make sure that people have the supplies and knowledge they need to stay safe.”

UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), with support from partner UK Aid and others, is working to deliver water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) supplies, so communities are prepared. So far, over 24,000 units of chlorine powder drums, water buckets, water testing kits, laundry soap, hygiene education materials, and portable toilets have been distributed to emergency treatment units in four districts, according to UN News.

However, educating the population is just as important as providing the supplies, as Torres explained: “WASH supplies are beneficial only if people use them properly. That is why the UN in Malawi is working to make sure people learn exactly what they need to do to keep themselves, their families, and their country, safe.”

Printed information about COVID-19 is being distributed throughout rural Malawi by UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and other UN agencies, with support from the European Union and UK Aid.

To address the immediate need, the World Food Programme (WFP) has distributed cash to almost 350,000 vulnerable people in the country’s most food-insecure districts.

The United Nations in Malawi, which is working with the ministry of health and community leaders to decide on the best ways to share prevention messages, insists that strong partnerships with community groups play a vital role in the fight against the pandemic. “The UN can’t do it alone,” said Torres. “Government can’t do it alone. People need to hear messages from those they know and trust.”

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