LILONGWE, Malawi — Ever since an expatriate tourism adviser labeled Malawi the “warm heart of Africa” in the 1970s, Malawians have worn the title proudly, sparing no effort to welcome visitors with open arms.
My family and I felt immediately at home here in Lilongwe, the capital. We arrived in April 2018, as part of the United Nations family in the country. We embraced this new adventure by exploring the countryside, discovering the wildlife and enjoying immense Lake Malawi, one of the continent’s Great Lakes, also known as “Nyasa,” meaning “lake,” which borders Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.
Surrounded by greenery, we seemed to live in an eternal spring. Behind its natural beauty and friendly attitude, however, the country suffers from climate change and economic shocks; it is struggling to overcome harmful traditional practices against women as well as people living with albinism; and it is striving to overcome a contested 2019 election, as it prepares for fresh elections in June.
Against this backdrop, news of the Covid-19 outbreak generated serious distress among the local and foreign residents of Lilongwe alike — not just the UN people working here but a large diplomatic community and international business sector. Even before the first case was officially registered on April 2, the three international schools decided to close, business activity slowed and teleworking became the new normal. Bishop Makenzie International School, where my daughter and son study, was closed on March 16. As regular customers of a small Brazilian-run supermarket, we were required to wash our hands before entering and faced cashiers wearing gloves and face masks.
At the time of this writing, Covid-19 in Malawi has 101 reported cases and only 4 confirmed deaths — even if multiplied by a hundred, that is nowhere near the scary levels that Europe, Russia and the United States are experiencing. We are now heading deeper into the pandemic, however, and the so-called curve will be most likely intensified by the lack of adequate health care facilities and no medical, protective and testing equipment.
As travel restrictions entered into force, the ability to leave the country for those wishing to join their families around the world were limited. Some internationals, including the essential staff and heads of the various UN entities, chose to remain in the country, making it clear that the partnership with the people of Malawi and its authorities is strong.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, we are all in this together.
Several UN organizations are here supporting the government’s efforts. The World Health Organization has helped to design a preparedness and response plan, including setting up lab testing and training public health specialists. Unicef is focusing on procuring medical supplies and equipment for the government and the humanitarian community, as well as repairing water and sanitation systems.
The World Food Program is increasing food supplies and improving nutrition with the Food and Agriculture Organization. The expansion of temporary cash transfers, besides other immediate steps to prevent major economic and social setbacks from the pandemic, is core to the work of the UN Development Program.
At the same time, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is helping to protect the more than 40,000 refugees and asylum seekers all located in Dzaleka, a small area in the central District of Doha, less than one hour by road from Lilongwe. Most of the refugees fled the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo; the others come mostly from Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia and Ethiopia.
The Malawi government established a lockdown in mid-April, after imposing earlier measures for preventing and containing the disease. However, in the middle of political rivalries, more acute after the contested 2019 May presidential elections, lockdown was almost immediately reversed. The country is left with social distancing, prohibition of mass gatherings, teleworking for government officials and closing land borders and air space as the main tools to fight the virus. Poverty, lack of sustainable jobs and economic fragilities are slowing progress in countering the disease.
The people most affected by the outbreak are children and youths. Almost a month and a half of social distancing and online learning have created frustrations and anxieties. Collective sports, such as touch-rugby and soccer, which my son loves, have been replaced with videoconferencing. Ballet and modern dance classes have been superseded by TikTok videos for my daughter.
Yet it is amazing how resilient and creative youngsters can be, using technology to hold online movie parties through streaming platforms and videoconferences to nurture togetherness in homework, and first-time teen romances are happening through social media, despite power cuts and Internet connection instability.
Spending more time at home has prompted many of us to turn to more basic ways of life. Our dog, Duma, a 2-year old Rhodesian ridgeback, seems to be the happiest member of our family; he loves having all of us around more during the day. We are learning through online tutorials to cook better and healthier, no longer afraid to try bread recipes or even grow our own fruit and vegetables in once-forgotten backyard gardens.
We are now growing bananas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, onions and lemons, which have become part of our daily routines. We continue to get up by 6 in the morning, right after the sun rises at 5:45, not to drive the children to school but to ensure that the mild cold of night has not damaged the nascent vegetables, as we enter the six-month no-rain season.
We are aware that the worst may yet to come to this small landlocked country, crossed by the Great Rift Valley from north to south, independent from British rule since July 1964. For many of the more than 18 million Malawians, survival is a daily achievement, with restricted access to electricity and clean water. Generations of Malawians have battled dengue, paludism, malaria and HIV, so the Covid-19 pandemic is another challenge they are ready to confront.
No one should underestimate the resilience of Malawians to survive such disasters. Now, more than ever, solidarity may be the sole recipe to overcome the crisis. With courage, the people of Malawi deserve to overcome this crisis with the same dignity and affection that they accord to their visitors.
This essay is part of a series of people who work in international affairs or global health relating their experiences during the pandemic from across the globe: Vienna, Chicago, Singapore, Madrid, Beirut, Geneva and Santiago, Chile.
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Antonio Menendez de Zubillaga is a senior human-rights officer for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, on family leave in Malawi. He previously served with the agency in Colombia and Burkina Faso as well as in Gaza for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. He is a graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.