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Tobacco Harm Reduction advocacy during the COVID-19 pandemic in Malawi

By Morton Manjawira

On April 2 of 2020, President Peter Mutharika, as he was then, confirmed the country’s first three cases of corona virus disease (COVID-19). Since then, Malawi has seen a plethora of ramifications. For a low- & middle-income country, what has been more apparent is the effect on the economy. External shocks leading to disruptions in trade, investment and remittance flows have worsened inflation whose rate was 9.2% as of May,2021.

Meanwhile, another area that has seen disruptions and more important to this discussion is the public health sector. Misinformation and misconceptions about Corona virus by the populace have made it difficult for public health advocates to enter and work within communities. There were incidences of health workers being jeered and refused access to public transport because they were considered agents of corona virus.

Concurring with these sentiments is George Mgemezulu of Mzimba Hospital. He sheds more light on the initial uncertainty and hostility at community level.

“Initially, people refused to come to the hospital for fear of contracting Corona virus. Eventually, this fear graduated into hostility towards community level awareness teams and outreach clinics.”

Tobacco harm reduction advocates at community level were not spared the rod. Sahan Lungu, a Tobacco harm reduction advocate & enhanced scholar who has braved this uncertain and unprecedented working environment shares some insight.

“Travel and social distancing requirements made it difficult for us who work in the field of tobacco harm reduction to properly conduct projects involving community engagement and outreach. In addition to that, the participants were always more suspicious of our activities due to misinformation around COVID-19”

Lungu further shares a theory about what he believes could be the effects of COVID-19 on both Tobacco users and those that have adopted safer alternatives.

“With government-imposed lockdowns, tobacco users are at home more and smoke more just to cope with the anxiety of the new normal. And with borders being closed at times, the few vapors in the country are having difficulties to import and access vape kits, liquids and other vape accessories with some resorting back to combustible cigarettes”

Nonetheless, Tobacco Harm Reduction Malawi’s team leader, Chimwemwe Ngoma, expressed optimism on the collective progress made on projects.

“Collectively, I believe we have made good progress.”

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