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Cyclone Freddy in Malawi

People cut off from healthcare after cyclone Freddy batters Malawi

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People are still reeling from the destruction wrought by cyclone Freddy, the most intense cyclone ever recorded by weather stations, which hit southern Malawi between 12 and 14 March. The region’s roads, bridges and electrical and sanitary infrastructure have suffered heavy damage. Freddy is one of the deadliest events in Malawi's climate history to date. 

“Entire villages have been engulfed by landslides and mudslides. Flash floods caused by torrential rains have washed away houses, roads and bridges,” says Rasmane Kabore, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) emergency coordinator in Malawi.

“Tens of thousands of people in some of the country’s southern districts now find themselves cut off from access to health facilities, which have either been destroyed or are no longer reachable due to the cyclone’s impact on road networks,” says Kabore.

Cyclone Freddy in Malawi
People walk along a destroyed and flooded road after Cyclone Freddy battered the southern region of Malawi on 12 March 2023. Malawi, March 2023.
MSF/Yvonne Schmiedel

In the wake of the disaster, our teams have been responding to medical and humanitarian needs in and around Blantyre city, where we have been providing screening and treatment for cervical cancer since 2018. 

MSF teams have supported Blantyre’s Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital through the donation of medical supplies and the allocation of staff to treat the wounded and carry out orthopaedic surgeries. 

After visiting some of the camps in Blantyre district, located mostly in municipal buildings such as schools, we are providing clean water and chlorine to help purify water, rehabilitating water networks, emptying latrines and distributing essential items such as blankets, firewood and cooking equipment. 

Some 50 camps have been set up around the city with the number of displaced people  in each camp ranging from a dozen to over 2,500. We will continue to provide support and assess the medical and non-medical needs of the most populated camps.

Entire villages have been engulfed by landslides and mudslides. Flash floods caused by torrential rains have washed away houses, roads and bridges. Rasmane Kabore, MSF emergency coordinator in Malawi

After carrying out a series of assessments, our teams have begun responding in Phalombe, Mulanje, Chikwawa and Nsanje, some of the hardest-hit districts. 

The southeastern districts of Phalombe and Mulanje are located at the bottom of the Mulanje mountain, which after an already prolific rainy season was hit by Freddy’s heavy rainfall, causing powerful mudslides and rockfalls. 

In Phalombe, our teams visited three health facilities including the public health centre of Nkhulambe, which is now filled with debris, mud and massive rocks, leaving roughly 54,000 people in the immediate vicinity with almost no access to healthcare.

“This area is completely cut off from people. We plan to respond to people’s needs and help them regain access to healthcare, such as general outpatient services and referrals of medical or surgical emergencies as soon as possible,” says Robert Wellemu, MSF medical coordinator support. 

Malawi’s Ministry of Health, MSF and other humanitarian partners aim to rapidly restore access to essential health services in Nkhulambe by setting up an advanced health post. Our team is already on the way with medical and logistics staff along with medical supplies.

Further south, in a response coordinated by the  Ministry of Health, MSF and humanitarian partners are trying to reach the priority zones of Ngabu, in the Chikwawa district, halfway between Blantyre and Nsanje, as well as the towns of Makhanga, Osiyana and Sankhulani in the district of Nsanje, which all border on Mozambique

Access to these zones is extremely difficult due to damaged or flooded road networks, leaving health centres poorly supplied and people cut off from access to medical services.

The aim is to reach all these areas before the end of the week to conduct a detailed assessment and respond to immediate medical needs. We are being particularly vigilant about a possible rise in the number of people affected by cholera in this zone.

The districts affected by cyclone Freddy are Balaka, Blantyre City, Blantyre District, Chikwawa, Chiradzulu, Machinga, Mangochi, Mulanje, Neno, Nsanje, Phalombe, Thyolo, Zomba City and Zomba District.

A report from Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs on 21 March stated that so far there were 507 deaths, 1,332 injured and 537 missing people. The report added that the number of people displaced stood at 553,614, with 543 camps, mostly set in schools, to accommodate them. 

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