Malawi Three Years: An Odd (COVID) Anniversary

Three years. I have not lived somewhere for three consecutive years since my stint as a Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program teacher in Yamaguchi, Japan from 1997-2000. In the twenty years since I left Japan, I backpacked around the world over the course of a year and then changed addresses some 18 times to or within 11 different locales until our move to Malawi in August 2017. Yet here we are, three years into an unexpected, but very welcome, four-year tour in Malawi, though, of course, the last half of this third year has not been quite what we had planned given the coronavirus pandemic.

Happy Coronaversary

No question the pandemic has turned everyone’s worlds inside out one way or another.  My struggles with teleworking, child care, homeschooling, and housework are not unique.  Friends around the world are wrestling with these same concerns.  And for when the particular idiosyncrasies of being a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in Malawi during the pandemic (because no, we don’t have a State or National Park to take a walk or hike or bike ride in nor can we have Whole Foods deliver), I have my friends and colleagues here to lean on and commiserate with. 

After the presidential election re-run, on which I had focused on since the beginning of the year, had come and gone and the new administration had begun governing, I found myself suddenly, painfully aware of the pandemic and the isolation and limitations it had placed on us.  At the beginning of July, I found myself feeling unmoored.  School had ended for the summer, the election was over and the results accepted peacefully, and a few other major work projects had wrapped up.  And the hope I had held for months that the pandemic would be over by July, like SARS had been when I had lived in Singapore, had been completely ripped up into tiny pieces.  Instead of being close to the end, it was still going on, and the numbers of confirmed cases were and are still increasing in Malawi.

Confirmed cases accelerate: 2,000 to 5,000 cases in four weeks

Confirmed cases, which began in early April, had reached 1,000 by early July, then doubled to 2,000 by mid-July, and the case numbers continued to climb.  A month later, by our anniversary date of August 13, cases had nearly reached 5,000 (they did the following day). Those numbers may not seem like much in comparison to other places, but coronavirus response capabilities are not created the same. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and resources like medical staff, hospitals, and equipment are not at the levels of more developed countries. Just think about testing capacity: I have heard that neighboring Zambia tests as many as 7,000 individuals a day.  In the U.S., the average daily tests between 1 March and 30 July were over 350,000.  Even if you just take the state of Florida, which is close in population to Malawi, there were approximately 27,000 tests daily in June.  In Malawi, testing averages a few hundred a day. 

On August 8, the government at long last issued stricter coronavirus measures — this after the initial lockdown attempt in April was slapped with an injunction when human rights activists took officials to court over their implementation. Masks are now mandatory in public spaces, businesses in close proximity to hospitals are closed, church services are limited, and weddings and other large public gatherings banned. Before the restrictions went into effect I had already seen an increase in mask wearing in Lilongwe, with persons from all walks of life wearing their masks while driving, taking buses, selling their wares, and even walking in the open air.

And while I have not heard of anyone beating up anyone who has asked them to wear a mask to enter a store, compliance is not universal. Churches bristled over the regulations forcing a reversal on the restrictions on places of worship. Wedding parties are most certainly still happening – there are wedding reception venues embedded into our neighborhoods and the past few weekends my friends and I have been treated to hours and hours and hours (I mean, like 1 PM to 9 PM) of non-stop dance tunes.

Our primary supermarket’s notice – Lilongwe City instituted its mask policy before the national government

Malawians have reacted to the pandemic and the restrictions much in the same way people have in other countries around the world. Some comply with measures, some do not. Some escape from quarantine, others voluntarily submit themselves. Some push for school and airport re-openings while others warn about the repercussions of doing so too early. When I am not frustrated by my inability to work at normal levels or being unable to travel, I am fascinated to have this ringside seat to the Malawian debates and to compare them to what I am seeing back home.

C tries out the new handwashing station at the supermarket

Perhaps the most interesting to observe and experience has been the innovation local businesses have implemented to keep customers. Before the pandemic there were only ad-hock delivery or pick-up in Lilongwe. Now however there is a food delivery service utilizing motorcycles, which can zoom around traffic, and pick up from just about any restaurant. Some supermarkets are also now delivering and the recycling group comes to pick up once a month in my area.

I have not regretted once staying here in Malawi for the pandemic. There are many other FSOs who are not as fortunate. Some may have only arrived at their Post a few months to half a year before the pandemic hit, giving them scant time to settle in, receive their belongings, learn their jobs, and meet colleagues and classmates and make friends before the quarantines and isolating began. Others were preparing to leave their assignments in the summer and opted to take the Global Authorized Departure (GAD) to shelter in the U.S. until they could make the move to their new duty station – quarantining in hotels or with family or in other temporary digs for an indeterminate period of time; unable to say proper goodbyes to friends and colleagues and leaving behind most of their belongings to be packed by others. And if they have been lucky enough to secure orders to their new assignment, many are quarantining in new, unfamiliar places and starting new jobs and schools from impersonal new homes.

Still others who were to transition this summer but chose to ride out the pandemic in a familiar place may now be unable to depart as commercial flights have not resumed in either their losing or gaining Post, or both. Some FSOs who had a year or more left in their assignment but chose to take GAD in the U.S. are now facing decisions of whether to break their assignment and try to find a position in a place they can get to or continue waiting for who knows how much longer to return. There are thousands of FSOs and other overseas government employees across the State Department, USAID, Foreign Commercial Service, Foreign Agricultural Service, Department of Defense and other agencies such as the Center for Disease Control, Department of Justice, Customs and Border Patrol, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Peace Corps (yes, all these agencies and more have overseas positions) and their family members who are in these circumstances.

There may be all sorts of masks available in Lilongwe now, but my favorites are those made of the local chitenje fabric.

But C and I are just riding the pandemic out in our home. While there were and still are adjustments for managing work and school in these circumstances, we did not have to add in other uncertainties. There was no need to pack, no need to move, no need to familiarize ourselves with a new city. I did not have to start a new job with all new co-workers. C did not need to start at a new school with new friends. And I am so incredibly grateful during these strange and trying times that we have this place where we are so comfortable, so at home. One more year to go.

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