I flew into Malawi via Kamuzu International Airport a few weeks ago and before being granted entry what I assumed to be healthcare worker stopped and asked me if I had visited West Africa the previous thirty days.
I started shaking my head signaling a BIG NO and told the official that I had in fact been in Europe and Asia for the past eight or so years. I pulled out my passport as evidence but she seemed she was already satisfied with my word of mouth.
As simple as that I entered the country. It then hit me, what if I was lying?
I have been enjoying my chambo, nsima and nkhwani wotendera and had totally forgot about anything Ebola related until a few days ago when there was an Ebola scare at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre. News of a woman with symptoms similar to the disease went viral on social media and several media outlets and had sent the country into a panic.
However, the Malawi government (through the Ministry of Health) quickly informed the nation not to panic as of that day there still was no confirmed Ebola case in the country. PHEW! Sigh of relief right? But wait a minute, what if that was actually an Ebola case? What next then?
Just eight months after the worst Ebola epidemic in the world started, those living in West African countries most affected by it are being cut down not only from this increasingly galloping fatal disease, but also from a looming famine.
As if the under-equipped and severely overwhelmed healthcare system wasn’t bad enough, as if their precious and experienced doctors and nurses weren’t slowly being picked off – now, fear and illness have disrupted the food supply chain.
Some quarantined patients don’t get fed (causing them to go out in search of food), and some Ebola orphans are literally starving to death because there is no one to feed them. And the prognosis for the war against Ebola is not good: By December, this disease, which currently has a 70% fatality rate, is expected to escalate to 10,000 transmissions a week.
This disaster is what all the ‘lucky’ countries outside the affected area are trying to avoid when they talk about “Ebola preparedness”. How prepared are we to contain Ebola if it finds its’ way into Malawi?
The two local transmissions that the United States experienced in October 2014, involving two nurses, who were infected when caring for a Liberian man who had lied about his travel history and had initially been misdiagnosed, should be ample warning to the rest of the world to never take preparedness for granted.
At the moment, we have the luxury of learning from the mistakes of others, but how will it be when it comes down to the crunch? Do we have enough immigration offices/ medical personnel at all entry points to interview everyone who comes into the country so that the person appreciates the importance of the answer? Will these officers be able to detect signs of deception?
In the instance of a confirmed diagnosis, do we have enough courageous healthcare workers, who are trained and experienced in infectious diseases and infectious disease control? In the US, it takes up to twenty nurses to look after just one patient.
The safety protocols are expensive and tedious – not even one tiny area of skin can be exposed, and hazmat suits must be changed regularly in a “buddy” system. Because all healthcare workers who have to care for Ebola patients face an elevated risk, they must be properly trained and equipped to deal with this unpredictable and deadly disease.
Armed guards may need to on standby outside bio-containment wards to ensure that no one tries to breach quarantine. And all the brave men and women who serve during the crisis must be assured that the best is being done to ensure their safety, too.
Every nation has the responsibility to do its bit to put obstacles in the way of this virus, so it doesn’t get out into the big wide world. The cost of failure would be too great. But does Malawi understand that?