Malawi health workers protest against lack of protective gear

Doctors and nurses in Blantyre stage sit-in, request government to meet their demands amid coronavirus pandemic.

A lab technician works inside the viral load room at the Thyolo District hospital on November 26, 2014. The World Health Organization (WHO) says there were some 35 million people around the world livi
Health workers in Malawi's public hospitals reported severe shortages of personal protective equipment, prompting demands for more secure working conditions [File: Marco Longari/AFP]

Blantyre, Malawi – Dozens of health workers in Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre, have staged a sit-in to protest against working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic, including a “critical” shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to treat patients.

Footage circulating on social media on Tuesday showed doctors and nurses in uniforms outside the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital carrying placards with slogans such as “We are not going on suicide mission” and “Should my family suffer because of my calling?”

The action came despite the National Organisation of Nurses and Midwives asking its members on Monday to return to work following a brief strike over the weekend. The organisation said the government had provided assurances to resolve their grievances, which include demands for PPE and risk allowance of 70 percent of their basic salary.

Government response

Malawi has, so far, 16 confirmed cases of coronavirus, mostly from individuals who arrived in the country from India, United Kingdom and elsewhere. Two deaths associated with COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, have been registered to date.

Recently, some cases of infection were traced to Malawians who travelled from South Africa – mostly using irregular routes – raising fears the actual infection figures could be higher.

Last month, President Peter Mutharika declared the coronavirus pandemic a national disaster and announced containment measures including the closure of schools and a ban on gatherings of more than 100 people.

Foreign nationals from countries affected by coronavirus have been banned from entering the country. Returning Malawians from these countries are being subjected to self or institutional quarantine. According to the Ministry of Health, more than 4,600 people who have entered the country are under surveillance.

Mutharika has also established a special cabinet committee on COVID-19 to “oversee a cross-government response to the threat posed by the disease”.

Meanwhile, doctors in public hospitals have reported severe shortages of PPE, including face shields, full-body suits, goggles, high filter masks and water-repellent long sleeve gowns. Their demands also include hiring more doctors, an increase in risk allowance and transportation arrangements amid reports of some health workers being prevented from using public transport over transmission fears.

“Most of our public hospitals are lacking protective wear, and most of our front-line staff are exposed to the risk of contracting the virus,” said Collins Mitambo, president of the Medical Doctors Union of Malawi.

He warned PPEs available in public hospitals would only last for a week, “while for Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital have finished”.

“We’ve engaged the chairperson of the [special cabinet COVID-19] committee, but we haven’t received any official response. The ministry, however, says it will address our grievances within two weeks,” Mitambo said.

“As a union, we feel like we don’t have much time. We request the government to expedite the process of procuring the equipment and recruiting of the workers. Otherwise, we won’t allow our members to work in that kind of environment.”

Health Minister Jappie Mhango told Al Jazeera on Monday that the government has enough equipment available “to keep us going for a while”, adding that additional gear was being distributed “as we’re talking right now”.

“The president has also made it clear that their allowances will be revised upward. All these things are being addressed, and they should be resolved by the end of this week,” Mhango said.

“The situation is still unfolding,” he added. “As government and country, we’re putting in place strict measures to curb the spread.”

Still, a doctor at a major public hospital, who asked to remain anonymous, said she and her colleagues “are scared to go to work or touch patients”.

“It is not fair enough for us to be working without PPEs. We have families to protect, and this is not the time to lose health workers. This is the time we should be holding on to them,” the doctor said.

“If these things are not addressed, we will stay at home and protect our families just like everyone else is doing.”