Returning back home during a global pandemic

Life as a returnee

Gregory Gondwe and Penelope Kakhobwe
Rhoda Gondwe and her child pose for a picture after finishing returnee registration in the wee hours of the morning
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Gregory Gondwe
07 August 2020

The 12 strenuous hours that Gloria Gondwe endured between 4 AM of June 19 and 4 PM of June 20, 2020 was an anxiety-filled time for her. But it was also a blessing in disguise as she was finally back home, away from the lockdown in South Africa. 

She and 189 fellow returnees entered Malawi through the Mwanza border. They were taken to Domasi College of Education in Zomba where they were being temporarily hosted while getting their coronavirus tests done. Their samples were taken for laboratory tests in Blantyre at the College of Medicine. Hours  went by as returnees waited anxiously to hear whether they had Coronavirus or not.

"You should have seen how my body involuntarily heaved with relief when they called my name as one of those who had tested negative," Gloria vividly recollects. "It felt good that my daughter and I were negative."  

“We were being tested with a swab going through the nose which is quite disturbing,” she said. "The baby also underwent the same test."       

Gloria is part of about 5,000 Malawian returnees from South Africa and 2,000 from other countries expected to travel back home since the outbreak of the pandemic.

A health worker assisting Rhoda Gondwe upon arrival at Domasi College of Education in Zomba
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Gregory Gondwe
A health worker assisting Rhoda Gondwe upon arrival at Domasi College of Education in Zomba

UNICEF, with funding from UK Aid, is working with the Malawi Government to ensure that the returnees are properly screened for high temperature and kept in safe holding centres with critical lifesaving interventions as they wait for laboratory results.

Gloria initially had fears about discrimination directed at people who have recently travelled from South Africa.

“I am hopeful that my family members will welcome me with open arms,” she had said at the time.

The journey back home

“As a precautionary measure, everyone was mandated to wear a mask in the bus,” she said but bemoaned that this was not possible on a child who is now one year and three months old. It was obvious that Gloria was not aware that children under 5 years are not recommended to put on masks.

She also noted that physical distancing was observed and only one person was allowed to occupy a seat usually occupied by two people and two on three seaters.

“I had to keep my baby, Walusungu, on my lap to avoid contact with any other passenger," she said.

Life as a returnee

Three weeks after she returned, Gloria is temporarily living with her brother in Chilomoni in the city of Blantyre.      

When she left Domasi College on the afternoon of June 20, she initially went to stay with her mother in Nsangeni Village in Traditional Authority Malemia within the same area of Domasi. Neighbours and relatives came in large numbers to welcome her. She was now the one advising them to observe physical distance by not hugging and shaking hands.

Gloria's brother Joseph said at first the family was apprehensive as they were not sure how to embrace her in the face of the corona virus. "There was jubilation when she told us that she had been tested negative and that government has now released her," said Joseph.

Malizeni’s experience

In the Capital City of Lilongwe, 26-year-old Malizani Kacheche is another one of many Malawians who had to return back home to Malawi from South Africa due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Upon reaching Malawi, he says they were taken to the Nalikule College of Education where they underwent screening.

They arrived on a Friday and the very next day, they were given the results. He remembers that those were the longest 24 hours of his life as he waited to know the outcome since he had been in contact with many people on the bus ride home.

Luckily the next day, his test showed that he did not have the infection. They allowed him to go home to his family while his fellow passengers who had COVID-19 were asked to stay behind.

His family was happy to see him and welcomed him warmly. He ensured that he observed self-quarantine for 14 days at home just to be on the safe side in case he was asymptomatic and could infect his family members.

He notes that every time he is taking a walk and wearing a mask most people in the community think that he has COVID-19. This sentiment was especially strong when he first got home. People were scared he had brought COVID-19 from South Africa to the community.

What compounds this is also the fact that his friends are shunning him as they view him as being infected with COVID-19. Thus to try and overcome this challenge, he has resorted to mainly interacting with his friends through the phone as compared to physical contact.

Malizeni also dispels myths that young people cannot contract corona virus and has a strong message for Malawian youth: “COVID-19 can also affect young people. I have seen young people get infected. We need to all ensure that we cover our faces with masks and try as much as possible to minimize unnecessary movements.’’

Malizani Kacheche a returnee washes his hands with soap at his home Kawale township in Lilongwe
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Edward Kabuye
Returnee Malizani Kacheche washes his hands with soap at his home Kawale township in Lilongwe

Supporting returnees

When returnees arrive in Malawi, they are assisted by the Ministry of Health, immigration department as well as UNICEF and its partner, the Malawi Red Cross Society, which provide them with relief items that included basic needs such as blankets, soaps, and mosquito nets.

The Society's Communications and Humanitarian Diplomacy Specialist, Felix Washoni said they are also involved in providing what they call 'restoring family links' which is a service where they offer talk time through provisions of phones.

"These people use the phones to connect with their families and report about their arrival besides informing them of their condition," said Washoni.

This is helpful as some of the returnees left Malawi some time ago and have not been in contact with their parents and relatives.

To date, UNICEF has supported the screening of more than 50,000 travellers with funding from UK Aid and the Irish Government. In addition to this, UNICEF and partners are also providing critical water, sanitation and hygiene services and supplies in the returnee holding centres, providing them with Psychological First Aid and information on preventative measures to fight COVID-19.