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'It feels like I am standing on a shore watching a tsunami hurtle towards us' - Irish aid worker in Malawi on coronavirus crisis

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Ronan Sweeney is an aid worker in Malawi with Concern

Ronan Sweeney is an aid worker in Malawi with Concern

Ronan Sweeney is an aid worker in Malawi with Concern

A DUBLIN aid worker who had the chance to fly home when the Covid-19 pandemic broke decided to stay in one of Africa’s poorest nations – which has only 20 ventilators for its 17 million people.

Ronan Sweeney (31), from Rush, Co Dublin, had the option to leave Malawi in southeast Africa as the pandemic spread and airports closed.

However, he chose to stay with aid agency Concern Worldwide to help the communities they support.

Ronan’s wife, Christine Kiernan (30), is currently working more than 3,000km away in Chad, meaning they haven’t seen each other since Christmas.

“Many lives could be lost if Covid-19 gets out of control here,” Ronan warned.

“It sometimes feels like I am standing on a shore watching a global tsunami hurtle towards us. Malawi’s health system has very limited capacity to deal with critical cases. There are just 20 ventilators and 25 intensive care unit beds in a country with a population of over 17 million people.”

Malawi has 17 confirmed cases and two deaths from coronavirus, but there are fears many more are undetected.

“Knowing the challenges Malawi is facing, I felt a strong personal commitment to support Concern’s response to coronavirus here,” said Ronan.

“I’m over 12,000km away from home, in a country that will struggle more than any in Europe if the virus spreads.

“I could have gone home, but I want to help the team here and give them support. I see it as part of my job.

“We had some hope coronavirus might not arrive here, but it has reached us and now we can’t tell how bad it will be, but we have seen what has happened in other countries and we hope to learn from that.”

In his role as grants and information manager, Ronan and his Concern colleagues are helping raise awareness of the virus and how to prevent getting it.

They are educating on howto prevent transmission, such as by washing hands, and are also providing washing facilities, soap and other essentials.

“Education is key, but there are language and cultural difficulties, and we are dealing with illiteracy and disability too, so in the poorer areas it is really word of mouth,” said Ronan.

“There is little TV and only some radio access, so it is a challenge. We are trying to ensure there are hand washing stations in the market areas, where there is access to soap.”

Christine, also from Rush, works for Concern in a remote part of Chad in north-central Africa, and he has relatives working in hospitals in Ireland and England.

“Christine had hoped to fly down here a few weeks ago on leave but then the airspace got shut down. We last saw each other at Christmas, and I’m guessing it could be another couple of months before we get that chance again,” he said.

“So we are using video chats and social media to stay in touch with each other and our friends and families.

“Connecting with my wife’s family, including two nurses in Dublin and one in London, has brought home the stark reality of the struggle everyone is facing and the enormous courage of frontline health workers.

“Just like everyone in Ireland committing to social distancing and supporting frontline health workers, I know that regardless of how difficult the situation becomes here, Malawians will do what they have always done, supporting one another against an enormous challenge.

“The Malawians are similar to the Irish in that sense. It has been nice to see how all the Irish got behind the drive to fight the virus.”

The World Health Organisation has said there are fewer than 5,000 intensive care beds available in 43 African countries – five per million people, compared to 4,000 beds per million people in Europe.

Herald