Activist countries

From corruption to the ‘mark of the beast’ – why countries like Malawi are battling Covid | Madalitso Wills Kateta

In January 2021, Malawian rights activist Paul Msoma wrote that he was in Kamuzu Central Hospital, struggling to breathe. The hospital had oxygen cylinders but no flowmeters – the instrument needed to connect him to these. I wondered where the funds that had been released for the country’s response to Covid-19 were going. “My situation is deteriorating and I desperately need oxygen,” Msoma wrote on Facebook. “Anyone who can help urgently, please help by donating this gadget.”

Kamuzu Central Hospital is one of the biggest referral hospitals in Malawi and it didn’t seem right that such a big hospital didn’t have oxygen flow meters which are very basic medical equipment costing around £18 room. It was at a time when the government had released more than £5.6million for the Covid-19 response effort.

Tragically, Msoma passed away a few days later. His plea for help opened a Pandora’s box and made many people realize that these funds were being abused. Influential Malawians staged a citizen response to Covid-19 and the government came to its senses, launching an investigation into Covid-19 related spending.

A possible report from the country’s ombudsman’s office following Nsoma’s comments said 79.8% of funds were misused, including money spent on non-Covid items like civil servants’ allowances. A subsequent audit by the country’s auditor general confirmed the numerous abuses.

But, to date, none of the officers involved in the misuse of the funds have been charged, although the president, Lazarus Chakwera, has promised that anyone who misuses the funds will face the law. The common belief on the street is that some of the people who misused the funds were politically connected government officials who could have shared the spoils with politicians.

Meanwhile, as people learned how previous funds were being used, Chakwera ordered the release of an additional £15.8million – mostly from the Global Fund’s Covid-19 Response Mechanism and the Rapid Credit Facility from the IMF to help deal with the effects of the coronavirus.

As things stand, people continue to die and the country does not have vaccines to administer to its entire population. Malawi had, as of January 2 this year, a total of 1,494,459 (7.6%) people with at least one vaccination, while only 712,848 (3.6%) had been fully vaccinated. Cumulatively, the country has recorded 76,295 cases of Covid-19 and 2,378 deaths, representing a fatality rate of 3.1%.

The Covid response in Malawi has been heavily affected by endemic corruption. This affected not only the procurement of vital items, but also areas such as outreach and public awareness. Vaccine hesitancy is a major problem. Currently, almost all major public hospitals in Malawi, including those in hard-to-reach areas, have some vaccines available, but there are concerns that even the current supply may not be fully utilized due to hesitancy. In May 2021, the country destroyed nearly 20,000 doses of expired Covid-19 vaccines. This could have been better managed if the funds earmarked for the outbreak response had been properly used in the early stages of the disease’s spread.

Much of the vaccine hesitancy in Malawi is driven by religious beliefs, with some religious leaders telling their followers that vaccines are prophesied in the Bible and are the first steps in marking a mark” 666″ – the mark of the beast. They say every citizen of the world must have a brand in order to engage in any business. There is another myth that has spread around that many women believe that vaccines will make them infertile. Reaching out and countering local misinformation is difficult as 82.57% of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas and around 65.8% of the population is literate.

There currently seems to be more commitment from the leadership of the country to get the population vaccinated. The government, with the support of different health organizations, embarked on a nationwide campaign where people are reached through mobile clinics within their communities and the result has been an increase in vaccination.

The country’s health minister also recently announced that vaccination against Covid-19 would become compulsory for certain civil servants such as police officers, health workers, teachers and journalists. But this has not gone down well with some rights groups, including the Malawi Human Rights Commission, which has opposed compulsory status on the grounds that vaccination should be a personal choice.

The recent increase in vaccination is welcome and overdue. But active citizen participation is still needed to hold leaders accountable for how every penny of the country’s Covid response fund is used and to educate others about the dangers of the virus. However, this will not be achievable until the country’s Anti-Corruption Bureau is sufficiently empowered and Chakwera commits to full transparency for all Covid spending.