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Coronavirus – Malawi: Returning back home during a global pandemic

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The 12 strenuous hours that Gloria Gondwe endured between 4 AM of June 19 and 4 PM of June 20, 2020 was an anxious time for her. But it was also a blessing in disguise as she was finally back home, away from the lockdown in South Africa.

She and 189 fellow returnees entered Malawi through Mwanza Border. They were taken to Domasi College of Education in Zomba where they were being temporarily hosted while getting their coronavirus tests done. Their samples were taken for laboratory tests in Blantyre at the College of Medicine.  Hours filled with anxiety went by as returnees waited to hear whether they had Coronavirus or not.

“You should have seen how my body involuntarily heaved with relief when they called my name as one of those who had tested negative and I was given back my papers,” Gloria vividly recollects. “It felt good that my daughter and I were negative.”  

Gloria confesses that she was uncomfortable with the testing procedures that they were subjected to upon arrival at the college.

“We were being tested with a swab going through the nose which is quite disturbing,” she said. “The baby also underwent the same test.”       

Gloria is part of about 5,000 Malawian returnees from South Africa and 2,000 from other countries expected to travel back home since the outbreak of the pandemic.

UNICEF, with funding from UK Aid, is working with the Malawi Government to ensure that the returnees are properly screened for high temperature and kept in safe holding centres with critical lifesaving interventions as they wait for laboratory results.

Gloria initially had fears about a wave of discrimination directed at people who have recently travelled from South Africa.

“I am hopeful that my family members will welcome me with open arms,” she had said at the time.

The journey back home

Access to health facilities for her family has not been easy as even at the time of her pregnancy she only made a couple of antenatal visits due to the nature of her residency in South Africa. She also rarely took her baby for the monthly hospital visits. Now with the lockdown, the situation had aggravated as this was no longer possible.

“Our trip back home was marred by a few challenges. As a precautionary measure, everyone was mandated to wear a mask in the bus,” she said but bemoaned that this was not possible on a child who is now one year and three months old. It was obvious that Gloria was not aware that children under 5 years are not recommended to put on masks.

Physical distancing was also observed and only one person was allowed to occupy a seat usually occupied by two people and two on three seaters.

“I had to keep my baby, Walusungu, on my lap to avoid contact with any other passenger,” she said.

Life as a returnee

Three weeks after she returned, Gloria is temporarily living with her brother in Chilomoni in the city of Blantyre.      

When she left Domasi College on the afternoon of June 20, she initially went to stay with her mother in Nsangeni Village in Traditional Authority Malemia within the same area of Domasi. Neighbours and relatives came in large numbers to welcome her. She was now the one advising them to observe physical distance by not hugging and shaking hands.

Gloria's brother Joseph said at first when they heard that their sister was coming back from South Africa, the family was apprehensive as they were not sure how to embrace her in the face of the corona virus.

“There was jubilation when she told us that she had been tested negative and that government has now released her,” said Joseph.

Malizeni’s experience

In the Capital City of Lilongwe, 26-year-old Malizani Kacheche is another one of many Malawians who has been forced to return back home to Malawi from South Africa due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Upon reaching Malawi, he says they were taken to the Nalikule College of Education where they underwent screening.

They arrived on a Friday and the very next day, they were given the results. He remembers that those were the longest 24 hours of his life as he waited to know the outcome since he had been in contact with many people on the bus ride home.

Luckily the next day, his test showed that he did not have the infection. They allowed him to go home to his family while his fellow passengers who had COVID-19 were asked to stay behind.

His family was happy to see him going by a warm welcome he got which was difficult under the circumstances as they could not shake hands or hug as is the norm when a person has been away for a long period of time. 

He ensured that he observed self-quarantine for 14 days at home just to be on the safe side in case he was asymptomatic and could infect his family members.

He notes that every time he is taking a walk and wearing a mask most people in the community think that he has COVID-19. This sentiment was especially strong when he first got home. People were scared he had brought COVID-19 from South Africa to the community.

What compounds this is also the fact that his friends are shunning him as they view him as being infected with COVID-19. Thus to try and overcome this challenge, he has resorted to mainly interacting with his friends through the phone as compared to physical contact.

Malizeni also dispels myths that young people cannot contract corona virus and has a strong message for Malawian youth:

“COVID-19 can also affect youth. I have seen young people get infected. We need to all ensure that we cover our faces with masks and try as much as possible to minimize unnecessary movements.’’

Supporting returnees

When returnees arrive in Malawi, they are assisted by the Ministry of Health, immigration department as well as UNICEF and its partner, the Malawi Red Cross Society, which provide them with relief items that included basic needs such as blankets, soaps, and mosquito nets.

The Society's Communications and Humanitarian Diplomacy Specialist, Felix Washoni said they are also involved in providing what they call 'restoring family links' which is a service where they offer talk time through provisions of phones.

“These people use the phones to connect with their families and report about their arrival besides informing them of their condition,” said Washoni.

This is helpful as some of the returnees left Malawi some time ago and have not been in contact with their parents and relatives.

Ever since the returnees started coming back to Malawi, UNICEF through UK Aid funding and together with partners has supported the screening of more than 44,000 travellers and people at the border points of entry, returnee holding centres, and those visiting District hospitals and institutions. In addition to this, UNICEF and partners are also providing critical water, sanitation and hygiene services and supplies in the returnee holding centres and information on preventative measures to fight COVID-19.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of UNICEF Malawi.


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