BLANTRYE, MALAWI - The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have designated Malawi a COVID-19 high risk country, and they are warning people against traveling to the southern African nation. The warning follows a surge in COVID-19 cases in a third wave of the pandemic.
Malawi is facing an unprecedented rise in COVID-19 cases in its third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, with an infection rate of 22%. That's up from about 2 percent in May.
Statistics from the Ministry of Health released Friday show that for the previous 24 hours, Malawi confirmed 451 new COVID-19 cases and seven deaths.
In Its travel notice this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people to avoid traveling to Malawi.
It says if travel is necessary, individuals must make sure they are fully vaccinated before making the trip.
The CDC also says in the current situation in Malawi, even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk of getting and spreading COVID-19 variants.
The World Health Organization has added Malawi to a list of African countries that expose people to a high risk of COVID-19 infection.
George Jobe is the executive director of the Health Equity Network. He says although the CDC's travel notice was not expected, it hasn't come as a surprise, considering the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
"Therefore, declaration should be an eye-opener for Malawians to be very strict, observing the regulations that we have, and also for Malawi to enforce compliance of the regulations," said Jobe. "That is what we need, especially that only 1 percent of Malawians have been vaccinated. Therefore, we are still prone to serious infections"
Malawi Health Minister Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda told a local radio station the announcement is not surprising and said it would affect the country's tourism sector.
Economists say although the travel notice is logical, they nonetheless worry it will have a negative impact on the country, which depends greatly on international trade.
Betchani Tchereni is a professor of economics at the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences.
"If travel restrictions are being placed against us, we are going to face problems with having people to be attracted to come to Malawi for tourism purposes," said Tchereni. "The second thing is, we want to attract the best investors from elsewhere, but if people cannot come here because they feel there is high risk of COVID-19, or indeed because they have been advised so, then you have problem. Remember, we are busy creating jobs in this country."
To curb the pandemic, the Malawi government has reintroduced strict COVID-19 preventive measures. Restrictions include a ban on political rallies, no fans at stadiums for football games, no gatherings of more than 50 people, and a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
But Tchereni said Malawi has never been serious about enforcing the measures.
"Look, we have never been as very serious in Malawi. We have always said people should not gather, but have you been to markets? People are gathering in markets. People are gathering in schools, are everywhere people are doing so many things," said Tchereni. "Yes, it is because of the nature of our economy, but you see what, we are going to lose lives and that is not good for the economy."
The government says it has engaged the police and the military to help enforce the measures.
For example, police officers say that on Friday alone, they arrested about 40 people in a crackdown on those ignoring COVID-19 preventive measures.