MaChinese sazatheka. Chinese did it again. Chasing away the hurricane from Malawi.

Piotr Cichocki

Warsaw, 29 de Abril de 2020

This netnographic report presents the situation in Malawi as for April 26th.
The global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic reached Malawi during political turmoil lasting from mid-2019. The presidential election of 2019 was recently annulled by the supreme court after several months of protests. These protests started in June 2019 were blockades of the largest cities, despoiling the already dysfunctional economy of one of the poorest countries in the world. Supreme court decided to repeat the election in May this year. Until that time, the contested winner and President of the previous term Peter Mutharika remains at the office.
This context is important for understanding responses to government policy on pandemics. It should be added that I know about the state of affairs mainly from the inhabitants of the Northern Region, which is considered a centre of opposition to Mutharika.
The politicization of the pandemic
The March decision of the government (led by the president) to preventively close schools and other public institutions, as well as to ban public gatherings, was distrusted by many. Through Whatsapp, I learned about opinions that the ban hinders the electoral campaign of the Mutharika’s rivals. It could be seen by some as a strategic political tool, because Mutharika has exclusiveness in biased public media (which is similar to the situation in my country Poland, where the current president Duda is unscrupulous in using lockdown for obtaining re-election).
Another decision starting a complete lockdown from April 18 caused mass, raged protests in the largest cities of Malawi: Mzuzu, Lilongwe and Blantyre. Strikes eventually blocked the presidential decision and inspired another case in the Malawian Supreme Court. The arguments of the protesters were no longer only concerning the political conflict, but rather the threat to the existence of many Malawians. Their lives depend not so much on the state budget sphere but on non-monetary exchanges, negotiated social relations, loans, sharing, offerings, temporary support or everything that can be described as an everyday game for basic needs. Young Malawians more or less playfully use words such as “surviving”, “just staying” and “hassling” to describe these continuous practices. The lockdown would suspend all these activities without proposing any support in return. Moreover, many of the country’s most profitable crops (e.g. tobacco) are just harvested at this time. In the northern region, tobacco is the basic of the monetary economics, so because of (I) that farmers are also protesting against lockdown.
In online conversations with friends, I met with opinions that “hunger can kill more people than virus”. Such opinions agree with the estimates of the Malawian organization Center for Social Concern, which claims that nearly 9 million Malawians (from almost 20 million) “would require food assistance across the country in the event of a lockdown (II)”.
Everyday and emergency shortage
Coping with Coronavirus in Malawi is not only a political, economic or demographic calculation. We are discussing the region where modern health discourses play a non-dominant role in the everyday life of its nationals. The Malawian state merges the neoliberal irresponsibility for the fate of its citizens with the postcolonial disparity of various spheres of social life. Let’s take the following example of incommensurability: private luxurious clinics and the free herbal medicines administered by possessed African doctors at remote villages.
The most Malawian patients don’t have access nor the ability to use the modern medical infrastructure in a private or public clinic. They more often visit African doctors whose diagnosis operate on a different register than modern health discourses. Moreover, the author visited several public hospitals and local clinics during research between 2016 and 2019 and it is impossible to compare them to the specialized laboratories visible on the media reports from Bergamo. The systematic neglecting of public sectors (known from many European countries) is the foundation of the everyday life of African neoliberal frontiers like Malawi, where the public healthcare system is on a minimal level. This applies also to the working conditions of the medical staff. Just on the eve of the epidemic in Malawi, the medical personnel successfully strike from the raise of the previously shockingly low 2$ risk allowance.
As in many other neo-liberally dysfunctional countries, self-help programs are sometimes organized by local activists. One of my Malawian friends, a teacher at primary school in Katula village and the founder of the local association KACOBO tries to purchase soap and other cleaning products for elderly people from the countryside. I have found the media report on Mzuzu Asian Business Commitee who sponsored maintenance of “toilets, the roof and walls” at Mzuzu Central Hospital (III). In a less formalized way, many associates asked me for infographics and other visual materials presenting the symptoms and prevention from coronavirus in order to share it throughout their social network.
The infrastructural situation is somehow relevant to the discourse and imaginary about the pandemic. The language of official international communication is completely separate from the experiences of everyday life of Malawians. In fact, comparing the global discourse on COVID-19 to Malawian reality is a study of confusions and misinformation. For the majority of Malawians, the main source of information are social platforms, such as WhatsApp, religious radio stations and for many in the countryside – the word of mouth. Moreover, governmental information campaigns are often approached with distrust. As an effect of this divided media environment, the general knowledge on the pandemic is contradictory. There are official WHO announcements on COVID-19 red by few; rumours that black people are supposedly resistant to the virus; preachings of Pentecostal pastors from India, Nigeria and other countries who claim that only the Holy Spirit has the medication for the COVID-19; conspiracy theories that there is not a single infected person in Malawi. Before that, the first cases were preceded by gossips about locking up the coughing Chinese visitors in luxury hotels in the capital Lilongwe.
Critical affects
The above is a description of recorded activities and discourses, received through social networks or found in Malawian online news reports. Nevertheless, I assume that the anthropologist should also try to understand experiences and feelings, that cannot be easily communicated by the internet. Whatsapp allows catching only glimpses of affects emerging in this uncontrolled circumstances. We are in a situation of the pandemic that challenges the methods of international anthropology. In the worst case, it can be deprived of its main measures – the meeting in otherness. Nonetheless, I will try to talk about the sphere of emotions, somehow speculatively, proposing it as a form of remote empathy and co-existence.
Some of my interlocutors wrote directly about fear. The fear was the reaction for the pandemic itself, but also for the rumours about night-hunters of human blood who acquire substances as a medication against COVID-19. It should be added that blood (chilopa) plays a tremendous role in the constitution of embodied identity in Malawi and in generally in sub-Saharan Africa (Thornton 2008). It is a biological and spiritual intermediary related, among others, to sexual, medical and religious practices. Not surprisingly, many interlocutors consider that coronavirus is transmitted primarily by blood and sexual substances.
Some of my Malawian friends, especially those who used to critically conceptualize life in their postcolonial country, wrote about the frustration of being entrapped between the global threat and the inability to get any support from own government.
According to some accounts, a large proportion of people – mainly rural residents – are indifferent to the alarms about the arrival of a pandemic to Malawi. This is not surprising, because at the village areas witchcraft and spiritual beings are considered more real health threats than microorganisms or submicroscopic infectious agents. After all, COVID 19 is a disease that spreads due to social mobility, attacks centres first. We are only about to find out its effects on the periphery.
During my fieldwork, I found laughter as an affective attitude that characterizes dealing with everyday life in Malawi at all – regardless of whether we call the existence there difficult or not. Recently I watched the news video coverage of the striking nurses who spent time playing a jump rope game and laughing happily (IV). This scene shot at the beginning of COVID 19 outbreak fits perfectly to the images I remembered from everyday situations whether joyful or sad. Therefore, this bodily gesture of the smile has not changed. One of my friends, irated about the intensity of the general situation, stated that Malawians must be jokers. With this, he commented on the internet chain from Malawian social networks – “MaChinese sazatheka. So these Chinese did it again. Sent a low quality COVID 19 to Africa & high quality to US and Europe.” This is an obvious allusion to collapsing Chinese cars, barely functioning electronic equipment and all other goods that are considered cheaper products for the African market. May the COVID 19 brought to Malawi to be equally inefficient.
This joke reflects tension and lightness of the wait for what they have no control over. I virtually join this joking along with prayers of which effectiveness I seriously doubt. I share the illusory hope that we are not waiting for the worst for the African states like Malawi. COVID-19, however, is not the only modern pitfall that threatens Malawians in the foundations of their existence – drinking, eating and, as Achille Mbembe sympathetically expressed, breathing (2020). Before the woeful 2020, Malawi experiences increasing droughts, permanent deforestation, and hurricanes. Without underestimating the coronavirus, we should remember that for the global south it is one of many immediate lethal challenges, inscribed in the logic of modern inequalities.
Mbembe, A. (2020). Le droit universel à la respiration. AOC, Analyse Opinion Critique,…/le-droit-universel-a-la-respiration/.
Thornton, R. J. (2008). Unimagined community sex, networks, and AIDS in Uganda and South Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.