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How Jesuit-Founded Organization is Responding to Malawi’s COVID-19-related Challenges

Logo of Cooperazione Internazionale whose officials are responding to COVID-19 in Malawi.

The leadership of Cooperazione Internazionale (COOPI) has, in a report, detailed how the non-governmental organization (NGO) founded by a Jesuit Cleric is responding to COVID-19-related challenges in Malawi.

Malawi’s President, Lazarus Chakwera declared a state of national disaster on January 12 following a spike in reported cases of COVID-19 in the Southeastern African nation, which had claimed the lives of two Cabinet Ministers on the same day.

In the February 10 report obtained by ACI Africa, the leadership of COOPI makes reference to data from 9 December 2020 to 8 February 2021, which indicates that COVID-19 active cases in Malawi increased from a mere 30 to more than 14,500.

The data also indicates that in the two-month period, the total number of confirmed cases more than quadrupled from 6,051 to 27,422; total number of deaths rose from 186 to 874; and the positivity rate increased from 1% to more than 22%, officials of the entity say.

They add that the spike in COVID-19 infections in Malawi is caused by the “new and more contagious variant” of the pandemic registered in other Southern African countries such as Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe particularly hard.

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The “significant increase” in COVID-19 cases in the landlocked country reveals “the fragility of its health system response,” COOPI officials note in the February 10 report.

Though latest data indicates that at least 914 people have succumbed to the pandemic, the entity’s leadership says that “the numbers may actually be much higher, as some cemeteries are having difficulty keeping up with the demand for burial services.”

That the country's capacity for testing is “extremely limited and fluctuates, not even reaching 4,000 daily tests” is another concern for the NGO’s officials who say the infections may be higher than the 28,270 cases currently confirmed.

“Hospitals in Malawi are stretched to the limit due to a surge in infection; the number of health workers becoming infected while caring for critically ill patients is increasing daily,” officials of the 55-year-old entity say in the February 10 report.

In a bid to address the situation, they say the Malawian government “has also decided to open field hospitals in the most affected areas, in the hope of being able to absorb the huge increase in the volume of critical cases.”

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To respond to the declared “state of national disaster,” COOPI’s officials in Malawi are currently leading a consortium of five international NGOs working in the North-Central region with the mandate of “supporting health facilities and frontline workers in efforts to treat COVID-19 patients and prevent further infection in surrounding communities.”

As a member of a different consortium of four NGOs operating in Southern Malawi, COOPI is also a carrying out the same mandate as the North-Central Malawi-based one, officials of the entity say in their February 10 report.

Funded by the Directorate General for Civil Protection and European Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), the consortia are operating in 48 selected health facilities in seven of the 28 districts of Malawi and serve 2.2 million people living in the catchment area of the facilities, the report indicates.

Through the two consortia, COOPI collaborates with other NGOs to improve the health, water and sanitation, disaster risk management capabilities of the healthcare workers as well as members of the local communities.

“At the community level, one of the objectives is to improve the information available to the population and increase risk perception in order to prevent misbehavior conducive to the spread of COVID-19,” officials of the entity, which runs programs in 14 African countries, say.

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The consortia teams also work with healthcare personnel by “training them on the management of the most severe cases, including those requiring non-invasive respiratory support,” they note and add, “In health facilities, the project is also committed to improving water supply, sanitation and hygiene through a risk-based approach known as WASH FIT.”

Anticipating the request for aid launched by Malawi's Minister of Health on 14 January 2021, COOPI officials explain that they activated the "crisis modifier," which is “an option to respond flexibly to emerging crises by activating additional funds.”

With the resources from the “crisis modifier,” the leadership of the NGO and other members of the consortia are procuring additional medical supplies, equipment, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) “to support and protect frontline health workers and ensure continuity of life-saving services for critical patients.”

Their “most urgent effort” is to secure hospitals by ensuring availability of PPEs to healthcare personnel and workers involved in emergency management and PPEs for cleaning staff and disinfecting materials for interiors, COOPI officials say.

They are also prioritizing the purchase of oxygen concentrators and cylinders to address the severe shortage in the supply of oxygen for critical patients, testing kits, as well as water and sanitation supplies.

Founded in 1965 by the “megaphone of charity” Italian Jesuit Fr. Vincenzo Barbieri (1930 – 2010), COOPI strives to break the cycle of poverty and support populations affected by wars, socio-economic crisis or disasters in view of fostering resilience and sustainable development.