A Letter from Jeremy and Luta Garbat-Welch, serving in Malawi
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A year ago, we were scrambling to get our Malawi work visas renewed in time to leave the country and travel to South Africa for a PC(USA) mission co-worker gathering with some USA-based staff. I drove down to Blantyre with the Nkhoma Synod HR director, and on the way back, I heard him listening to news about a new virus. I remember thinking, why is a new virus in China relevant to a Malawian?
A week or so later, as we traveled to South Africa, we ran into temperature screening in the airport. We had a bit of a delay since our oldest had a cold, which always gives him a temperature. At the meeting, I heard more about this new virus, and people started wondering if trips to Malawi would be canceled before the month ended. We had already planned to return to the USA in the middle of March, so I didn’t think too much of it.
Of course, by the time our date to travel rolled around, borders were shutting down, and we had to make some last-minute adjustments.
We are now ten months into our six-month trip to the USA, and we still don’t know the answer to one of the most common questions we hear, “When are you going back to Malawi?”
For many months, Malawi had very low case rates. Some believed that the virus wouldn’t hit Africa the way it was hitting the USA and European countries. Unfortunately, in the past month, this belief has proven false. In a recent speech, the president of Malawi, Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, informed people that nearly half of all positive cases and a third of the deaths have occurred just in the month of January. He has declared a state of emergency, and the country is going into lockdown.
We are hearing about it in more personal news as well. Three of my (Jeremy’s) colleagues have tested positive. Thankfully, they are all recovering. The doctor at our local clinic died. And parents of several of our friends and acquaintances have tested positive, and two have died. Every day we seem to hear the news that someone in our circle in Malawi has become infected. Public and private hospitals are overwhelmed. There have even been deaths among Malawi’s elected leaders.
It is quite sobering. As people in the USA are making plans regarding a vaccine, people in Malawi are just starting to feel the worst of COVID-19. As people in some countries are hoping that the end of “pandemic life” is in sight and a return to “normalcy” is within reach, others are just beginning the long lockdown struggle.
We are grateful for the news that the ministries continue despite pandemic hindrances. In a recent conversation with Mr. Chimwezi, the Nkhoma Synod Community Health Evangelism (CHE) Program leader said, “We are scared; we are losing so many people.” Despite this fear, the CHE program has adjusted its plans to accommodate social distancing and is continuing to reach out to two new villages that have expressed interest in engaging in Community Health Evangelism. They are teaching soap making, meeting in their Village Savings and Loan groups (a savings and micro-enterprise initiative), and meeting in prayer. Mask wearing has proven difficult within the village setting, so the CHE trainers are focusing on COVID prevention messaging. Their faithfulness during this time is an encouragement. Hospital chaplains struggle to balance the increased need for spiritual care with increased restrictions on visitations. A lack of personal protective equipment doesn’t help. They are using this time to provide training to other staff on how to support people during a crisis. Due to early pardons, prison chaplains have been occupied with a lot of former inmates returning home and needing support. They also continue to encourage local congregations to support those still in prison, though the slow economy has meant that support has reduced.
There have been many stories of strength and experiences of resiliency during this pandemic! Hopefully, you find strength in them as we wait and pray for an end to the pandemic.
We are extremely grateful for your support this year. It has been humbling to know that you and so many others are taking the time to pray and giving of your resources during a time of global stress. As you continue to pray for us and support us, please remember the people of Malawi. The Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCCAP) continues to serve through its various ministries. We think and pray for our friends and colleagues daily. And while the “end” does not yet appear in sight, we do continue to hope that we can return soon to Malawi.
In Christ’s Service,
Jeremy (for the Garbat-Welch’s)
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