A woman far in the distance walking on a dusty road in Malawi. Trees are dotted around in the dry landscape.
A woman far in the distance walking on a dusty road in Malawi. Trees are dotted around in the dry landscape.

Photo © Sightsavers/Siegfried Modola

Six voices from Malawi

COVID-19 threats: from financial ruin to abduction and murder

Grace

Grace (not her real name) is a woman with albinism who feels her life has been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Grace is 32 years old and comes from Mulanje district, where she lives with her husband and children.

Grace is a primary school teacher, a businesswoman and a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree at university. She sells second-hand clothes and plastic bags to boost her income. But due to COVID-19 she no longer goes to school to teach, she is unable to run her business as usual and she cannot go to learn at the university as schools are closed. Her university has introduced online classes, but because she’s shortsighted (as a result of her albinism), she can’t see well enough to take part. Online lessons do not provide room for reasonable accommodation for her to equally access education. And because she can’t run her business, there are extra financial constraints on her family.

People with albinism in Malawi are usually able to get supplies of sunscreen from health centres. But Grace can’t easily do this because of movement restrictions, and because of threats to her security. There are frequent abductions and killings of people with albinism in the country, and Grace feels her life is under particular threat right now. Prior to the COVID -19 pandemic, Grace had reported a case to the police of people who had plans on abducting her. The police arrested the suspect, but due to COVID-19 Grace has been unable to follow up on the progress of the case and the police haven’t updated her. Recently she saw the suspects out in the community – she thinks they might have been released to ease the congestion in police cells (a move by police to avoid the spread of COVID-19). She also feels the release of the suspect might have been due to negligence by officials, who have previously displayed negative attitudes towards her during the pandemic.

Mangaliso

Mangaliso is from Ekwendeni, Mzimba district, where he lives with his wife and two children. He works as a primary school teacher to earn a living and support his family. Mangaliso, who is visually impaired, also does some income-generating activities such as fixing bicycles, fixing braille machines and gardening, to increase his monthly income. Since Malawi registered its first COVID-19 cases, the government introduced several preventive measures like restrictions on gatherings, social distancing and school closures, and this has had a negative impact on Mangaliso’s life.

Mangaliso’s not currently able to run any of his businesses so has lost income. He’s also had challenges in harvesting maize from his farm, due to the increase in transport costs which he can’t afford. He depends on a personal guide to help him move around, but in trying to maintain social distance, people are afraid to touch him. Since he does not have a proper white cane to use, Mangaliso’s ability to live independently has been greatly affected. He’s also experienced difficulty in accessing information related to COVID-19 since it is not readily available in accessible formats like braille. All these challenges have put a strain on Mangaliso, and he’s struggling to support his family.

Viola

Viola, who’s 17 and has a hearing impairment, says COVID-19 has affected her in many ways. She can’t go to school as schools have closed, she can’t meet her friends as public movement is restricted, and she’s not sure whether what she is studying alone at home is working or not because she can’t meet the teachers face-to-face. She fears she will lose her friends because they are not allowed to associate. She feels lonelier and discriminated against in the pandemic (unlike before), as she is only associating with her family members.

Janet

Janet is a lecturer at a college in Blantyre. She has a physical disability and says that she and other people with disabilities are more vulnerable to the pandemic. Because of her age, she feels her likelihood of being infected is high. Economically, Janet is not able to support her household needs – she’s limited in what she can do now compared to what she used to do, for example as consultancy work that could bring her extra income. She feels that the government needs to put funds in place to cater for persons with disabilities in this pandemic, as well as engaging and involving persons with disabilities in COVID-19 awareness and sensitisation campaign messaging to avoid discrimination.

Gabriel

“As a person with albinism,” says Gabriel, “I need more information on how COVID-19 is spread and can be prevented. The information I am getting from the radio is general but I specifically look for information that is focused on people who are already vulnerable like myself.”

Gabriel is married and has three children. He stays in the most remote area of Manjawira in Ntcheu district. He feels that he knows very little about the virus – no advocacy meetings about it have so far taken place in his area. He has only heard about COVID-19 from some people who own radios and this puts him and his family members into a situation of fear and uncertainty about the risk of contracting the virus.

Gabriel’s small scale business selling cooking oil in sachets has dwindled as a result of the economy slowing down, and he’s finding it hard to provide for his family’s basic needs. But he hopes the situation will change and his business will soon pick up.

Peterson

Peterson is a 31-year-old married man who is blind. He lives in Chirimba, one of the highly populated townships in Blantyre City. Peterson earns a living by playing music in the streets of the city using a locally-made guitar. He charges MK100 (about 11p) for every song he plays. On a good day he makes MK3500 (around £3.70) and manages to support his wife and two children.

But the economic status of Peterson’s family has changed from good to bad due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I no longer make enough money as I used to in the past,” he says. “There are no longer many people on the streets to pay for my music because of the restrictions on social gatherings which have been imposed as one way of preventing the spread of the virus. I am currently struggling to support my family with the basics. COVID-19 has robbed my source of money.”

Peterson fears that COVID-19 has made him more vulnerable, as he fails to observe some preventive measures recommended by health specialists. “I always rely on my young brother to assist me,” he says. “He needs to hold my hand and lead me to the streets to play music. We cannot follow the social distance which is being promoted.”

Peterson feels there is more to be done to enable people who are in similar situation to access information on COVID-19. “We need … preventive information on large print leaflets and braille so that we can easily access the important information,’’ he says.

Interviews by Naomie Msungeni, Betty Moses and Ben Chikaipa

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