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'Social distancing is a luxury of the developed world' - Irish group leading Covid-19 battle in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Staff at the Palms GP surgery with three Malawian clinical officers on a training visit to the surgery in 2019

Staff at the Palms GP surgery with three Malawian clinical officers on a training visit to the surgery in 2019

Staff at the Palms GP surgery with three Malawian clinical officers on a training visit to the surgery in 2019

A small Irish charitable group that usually focuses on chronic diseases in Malawi has become one of the biggest sources of information on Covid-19 in Sub-Saharan African countries.

The Gorey Malawi Health Partnership was formed in May 2016 in an effort to combat chronic diseases in Malawi, one of the poorest countries on earth.

After realising that there was a general lack of knowledge around the pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, however, the project turned its attention to releasing information that could potentially safe the lives of countless people.

Malawi alone has a population of 16 million people with Sub-Saharan Africa having over a billion. The project, set up by Palm Surgeries in Gorey, has been one of the major disseminators of information surrounding Covid-19 in Malawi and surrounding countries.

So far, the project has developed around 14 informative videos, in keeping with WHO guidance and designed to cover one aspect about coronavirus. The videos are three to five minutes long and are conducive with sharing on WhatsApp.

The union of doctors in Ireland are currently working on translation into Arabic however and the programme has been offered to Mozambique, in which case it would be translated into Portuguese. The goal is to have as many language options as possible to suit the array of languages present in Africa.

Peter Harrington, one of the founders of the project along with colleague Joe Gallagher, said that the lack of information around Covid-19 means that many people living in the target countries mistake the virus for malaria.

"The challenges you're up against is trying to recognise Covid-19 among other illnesses might be a challenge. In Africa, if you say aches and fever, you generally assume you have malaria. So we're trying to say it might not be malaria," he said.

"The number of ventilators in Malawi and Sub-Sahara is very small so all you're going to do is take in the patients and infect staff and other patients and it not be any good to them so there are big issues around it.

"We've paid Facebook to promote the video to make people aware by targeting health professionals in the area. It's a strange thing but everything has to be judged by its value so institutions want their employees to enact this as hospital policy would need to make sure that each of their employees received it by email or WhatsApp."

While the virus was slow to take the hold in Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of cases is beginning to rise exponentially in some areas.

Dr Harrington said that there are also concerns over the accuracy of reporting cases in the area. The standard of hygiene, he said, is conducive with the wide spread of disease.

"Social distancing is a luxury of the developed world. You and I could sit and drink tea in my kitchen and be two metres apart. In Malawi it's really just not possible. In a family you might have four generation living in the size of the average garage in Ireland. There could be 10 or 12 people in that.

"They eat very often with their hands - it's their custom - so they're touching their mouths a lot with their hands and one in five people make their living in the market so you have to go to the market.

"It's a really poor society so you can't ask those people to stay at home, they have to get out and make a living and they're saying 'well if I don't eat or feed my daughter, we're going to die, whereas Covid might not kill me so I need to survive'.

"And then hygiene is poor. Your average toilet would be a struggle. There may not be soap, there may not even be running water. So we are worried about an non-flat curve and a really big wave."

Online Editors