“No one is safe until we all get vaccinated,” says Chief Boyole
It’s a sunny Tuesday morning in Boyole Village, 25km north of Kasungu district in Central Malawi.
The rainy season in the tobacco-growing district is blighted by a prolonged heatwave that makes long walks unbearable for many, but Egrita Phiri appears undeterred.
The mother of seven is returning from her maize field when she hears a branded van playing hit songs and messages on the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
She promptly waves the vaccination express to stop under a mango tree by her house.
“There is no better time to protect myself,” she says: “With this, I don’t have to endure long travels in the scorching sunshine or pay for transport to get vaccinated.”
As community health workers write down her background information in a register and on a green card, more villagers arrive to get vaccinated.
A story of love
Some 15 more people got vaccinated by the time the team deployed by Kasungu District Health Office with support from UNICEF Malawi and Kamuzu College of Health Sciences departed for the next stop. UNICEF is also supporting safe storage and distribution of the vaccines the Government of Malawi acquires through the COVAX facility backed by the World Health Organisation.
“I am now vaccinated to protect myself and my family from the current and future COVID-19 waves. Surely, I wouldn’t have been vaccinated if the van had not come close to home,” Egrita says.
For the wife of village chief Boyole, protecting one another is a love story.
“No one is safe until we all get vaccinated,” she said after getting the first jab of AstraZeneca. She is due for the second in March.
Her husband got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine in August at Kasungu District Hospital.
The couple first heard of the COVID-19 vaccination on the radio in March 2021 when Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera publicly got his first shot, kick-starting the nationwide campaign.
“That showed me the vaccine was safe, but it wasn’t easily accessible,” says the woman whose desire to get vaccinated was ramped up by deaths of over 2 000 Malawians, including two ministers and four lawmakers.
The third and deadliest wave forced the government to turn a presidential palace and a stadium into emergency hospitals to lessen pressure on the healthcare system.
“COVID-19 doesn’t choose, so my husband did well to protect himself. I have been hearing health workers on the radio saying most of those hospitalised or dying from the virus are those who shun the vaccine. I need to be healthy to take care of my family, crops and the community,” she explains.
Symbol of acceptance
Egrita’s husband, Group Village Headman Boyole is happy that his wife is no longer a symbol of vaccine hesitancy.
He considers the jab as the single most important weapon against the virus, which has claimed over 2000 lives in Malawi.
He states: “After three futile trips to Kasungu District Hospital, which cost about K10 000 (about $12), I received the vaccine together on 23 August 2021 to protect myself, my family and my people.
“I wish I had done it in my village for my people to learn from me. The vaccine is safe and my wife was motivated because it didn’t kill me. Bringing it closer to those who need is increasing the number of those getting vaccinated and the understanding that it is safe for everyone.”
The vaccinators also address questions face-to-face, clarifying fears, myths and misconceptions.
This excites GVH Boyole, who publicly talks about the dangers of COVID-19 and the benefits of the free vaccines, including during meetings and funerals.
“Every adult should protect themselves,” he says. “With the express vaccination van, no one bears any financial cost or hardships to get vaccinated. Instead of going to them, the health workers are coming to us.”
Mercy Tchale, one of 16 health surveillance assistants at Dwangwa Health Centre, was accustomed to promoting sanitation and hygiene, family planning, immunisation for children aged below five and monitoring their growth curve.
However, COVID-19 has pushed her to the frontline where she now promotes preventive measures and administers vaccines to communities surrounding the rural health facility.
“The pandemic challenges us to embrace innovative ideas to protect our people and the understaffed health sector from being overwhelmed,” she says.
The community health worker assures everyone that COVID-19 vaccines are like any other—a shot at a healthy life in a world struggling with contagious diseases.
She explains: “The number of people who were coming to the health facility to get vaccinated was fewer than 20 a day, but now we are vaccinating over 100 when we go to them.
“This is a no mean achievement. Clearly, people no longer have to stop doing activities that bring food to their homes and travel long to get vaccinated.”
Joseph Chitsime, coordinator of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) in Kasungu, is excited that the mobile teams have helped clear doses that would have expired on New Year's eve.
The team vaccinates in a day the count they once did in eight days, he says.
“Before we rolled out the vaccination express on 7 November 2021, we were lucky if 40 people came to get vaccinated in all our health facilities. Now our four teams vaccinate 250 to 300 a day,” explains Chitsime.
The express vaccination team includes health promoters who spread accurate messages about the vaccine, HSAs who go door-to-door and stop in strategic places to vaccinate those who are willing and community leaders who mobilise their people.”