Mission Unscripted: Soap, oxygen and other miracles

Malawian woman wearing yellow ID badge shows hand smeared with blue paint

A family carer at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Malawi learns about the spread of coronavirus using blue washable paint.

Peter and Caroline Finch


“You’re better off doing what God tells you to do!”

This was my Chichewa [language] teacher’s remark when she heard we had decided to stay in Blantyre, Malawi and keep working in medical care here during the Covid-19 crisis.

She is right of course, and we are so thankful for the sense of peace we are experiencing at the moment, which is a significant and welcome change. Thank you to all who are praying. Please continue to pray for us as we are very conscious that we are content and calm in large part because of the support and love we’re receiving.

Here in Blantyre, Covid-19 is behaving very differently to patterns in the UK. Malawi has a slowly growing number of cases and there are still no Covid-19+ patients in the hospital yet.

We are relieved that lockdown did not go ahead. We could not see the benefit of flattening the curve for a health service that lacks capacity to respond and where soap, running water and social distancing are privileges not available to the vast majority of Malawians.

Markets and streets are still busy, and crowds are gathering for political rallies. Last year’s presidential elections were annulled and campaigning for July elections continues unabated.

There was a strike last month at the [Queen Elizabeth Central] hospital over lack of equipment. Thankfully it resolved within a few days. The staff now have some PPE and are being given transport to work so hopefully this will go some way towards helping nurses to stay on the wards even when they are nervous.

On the medical wards, options for treating Covid-19 are still very limited, with only 12 beds able to deliver oxygen. The Malawi Liverpool Wellcome Trust (MLW), a research institute here, has successfully found international funding to buy an oxygen plant for Queens, a project organised by fellow mission associates Melita and Steven Gordon.

Frustratingly the machine has been delayed in Cape Town for several weeks; it’s expected to leave Cape Town this week. The logistics around getting the machine here, and delivering oxygen to patients are going to be considerable.

Peter is still doing ward rounds and emergency endoscopy lists for which he does have PPE. He has also just about completed a project to build himself an ECG machine. (The department has a graveyard of secondhand ECG machines but they are difficult to get repaired.)

I am now working exclusively at the ChiraFund (a medical charity based in the hospital). We finally have basins of running water and soap on the wards.

Most time and energy has gone into improving safety and sanitation at the Guardians Shelter. This is the site where guardians (relatives who do all the nursing care for patients) sleep, rest and cook. The site was very insecure with a damaged security wall and no way of knowing who were bona fide guardians. The wall has been rebuilt and a new ID scheme for guardians has begun.

Before it went live I was imagining how many ways it could fail but the scheme is working. The nurses are thrilled because it has taken a lot of pressure off the wards. Now that guardians feel safe at the site they are much more willing to use it at night. I had been assured many times that this system would never work so it goes to show that miracles are not a thing of the past. We now need to keep our eyes on the ID tags and make sure they are not being sold. We plan to change the colour of the tags every few weeks to keep one step ahead.

Here is the verse on our fridge that has encouraged me enormously recently.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

1 Thessalonians 5:17-18

Giving thanks in all circumstances reminds me not to dread what may never happen. A few pointers for prayer:

  • Thank God we are feeling much calmer here
  • Ask for protection for the oxygen plant as it travels from Cape Town and pray for its successful installation
  • Pray for protection for Peter as he works on the wards
Published 20 May 2020

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