Air of Joy: Hope for Malawi as COVAX delivers first vaccine doses

"Arrival of these COVID vaccines in Malawi represents the bright side of international cooperation to ensure equality in access to vaccines"

There was a big sigh of relief at Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe on Friday when the boxes containing the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines for Malawi were offloaded from the plane.

Ululation and excitement greeted the arrival of the vaccines from COVAX as they offered critical hope that the Southern African country can now reinforce its fight against the pandemic.

“I am so excited because that box gives us hope; that box represents restoration,” said Malawi’s Minister of Health Khumbize Chiponda. “That box gives us hope that one day soon, we will have the opportunity to see our beautiful smiles again on our faces.”

Malawi has received its first 360,000 doses of Astra Zeneca/Oxford vaccines from COVAX. Chiponda said they expect to rollout the vaccinations within five days, starting with the most-at-risk, who include health workers, those with underlying medical conditions, the elderly from age 60 and others.

“COVID-19 brought us a cultural shock. Our economy has suffered tremendously. Our people are struggling to make ends meet. So, in that box, there is hope for Malawi. The vaccine rollout will help reduce deaths, the risk of hospitalization and severe diseases,” said the Minister.

Four cabinet ministers, joined by United Nations officials and representatives of the international community, witnessed the arrival of the vaccines in Malawi.

UN Resident Coorinator Maria Jose Torres at the airport
UN Resident Coordinator Maria Jose Torres witnessing arrival of the vaccines at the airport in Lilongwe.

UN Resident Coordinator Maria Jose Torres commended the global cooperation under the equitable coronavirus vaccine delivery initiative, COVAX. She said it has ensured Malawi is among the first African countries to access the vaccines at the same time as the developed world.

“This is a tremendous effort to stop the virus,” said Torres. “The arrival of these vaccines in Malawi represents the bright side of international cooperation to ensure equality in access to vaccines. This is what the UN is about – solidarity and cooperation.”

Malawi also received 360,000 bundled syringes and 3,625 safety boxes for safe disposal of syringes for the COVID-19 vaccination through the COVAX facility on 26 February 2021. An additional 2.1 million syringes and 21,600 safety boxes have been dispatched by sea for Malawi arriving mid-March.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic early last year, the UN has been at the forefront supporting Malawi government COVID-19 response, with UN agencies re-programming and mobilising new resources and efforts to support the response. Under the Malawi SDG Acceleration Fund, an additional US$4.5 million has been allocated through its Humanitarian Window in the most urgent and catalytic areas of the response. The Fund is currently channelling US$2 million to support the rollout of the just arrived vaccines to vaccinate those most-at-risk.

UNICEF Rep, Malawi Minister of Health, UNRC and WHO Rep with the Astra Zeneca vaccine boxes
UNICEF Representative Rudolf Schwenk, Malawi Minister of Health Khumbize Chiponda, UN Resident Coordinator Maria Jose Torres and WHO Representative Nonhlanhla Dlamini at the airport after receiving Astra Zeneca vaccine boxes.

To date, over 32 000 COVID-19 cases have been recorded in Malawi where the pandemic has claimed over 1,000 lives, heavily burdened health facilities, and disrupted socio-economic services, worsening unemployment, teen pregnancies and child marriage.

“The only way out of this crisis is to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are affordable and accessible to all countries. The arrival of these vaccines in Malawi is a proud moment for everyone,” said UNICEF Malawi Representative Rudolf Schwenk.

WHO Malawi Representative Nonhlanhla Dlamini said: “The purpose of the COVAX facility is to ensure fair and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines regardless of a country’s wealth status. These deliveries mark the start of what will be the largest, most rapid and complex global rollout of vaccines ever known in history.”

COVAX aims to make vaccine distribution as equitable as possible, providing free or discounted vaccinations to qualifying countries. It is co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), working in partnership with UNICEF as well as the World Bank, civil society organisations, manufacturers, and others.

Malawi Ministers of Finance (Felix Mlusu), Health (Khumbize Chiponda) and Education (Agnes NyaLonje)
Malawi Ministers of Finance (Felix Mlusu), Health (Khumbize Chiponda) and Education (Agnes NyaLonje) at the airport receiving the vaccines.
Written by
Phillip Pemba
Development Coordination Officer, Programme Communications and Advocacy
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations Children’s Fund
World Health Organization