Suicides rise in Malawi as virus debts compound misery

Lilongwe (Malawi) (AFP) –


Loud sobs echoed through a suburb of Malawi's capital Lilongwe in the middle of the night, jolting resident Paul Kaonga from his sleep.

The cries came from a nearby house. Kaonga hastily pulled on some clothes and rushed over.

Distraught family members informed him that Kondwani Botha, a neighbour, had killed himself.

The 31-year-old father had struggled to keep his construction business afloat when coronavirus hit and he sunk into debt.

"He was really knee-deep in financial trouble," Kaonga told AFP after the funeral.

It was the third suicide Kaonga had heard of in his neighbourhood in the space of two weeks.

A few days later, another man who was also struggling financially took his own life.

Kaonga, who works as a pastor, blamed economic hardship brought on the pandemic.

"People have resorted to lending money from loan sharks just so that they can get by (and) pay their workers," Kaonga explained.

"Before you know it, you owe so much that you cannot pay back."

- Dwindling incomes -

Malawi was already one of the world's poorest countries when the pandemic arrived, further dampening the economy.

Around half of Malawi's 18.6 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, and an additional 1.1 million fell into that category this year, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Most people in the landlocked southern African country rely on day-to-day street trade and odd jobs stifled by movement restrictions.

Coronavirus hindered "the normal ways of business" in Malawi, said economist Betchani Tchereni, estimating that around 2.7 million people lost income this year.

Police spokesman Peter Kalaya suspects suicides have increased as a result.

Deaths by suicide recorded between January and August 2020 were more than 50 percent higher than over the same period last year, Kalaya said.

The most common reasons were family disputes, chronic illness and inability to pay back debt.

"We are greatly troubled," Kalaya told AFP.

"We have taken a proactive approach by raising awareness on how citizens can deal with stress," he said, adding that staff had been trained to respond to depressive behaviour.

- Coronavirus anxiety -

Mental health experts have also raised alarm bells over higher suicide risks.

Psychologist Beatrice Chiphwanya, who runs a private practice in the city of Blantyre, said she has helped an unusually high number of clients overcome suicidal thoughts this year.

"People are dealing with a lot of anxiety (and) uncertainty concerning education, health, finances," Chiphwanya explained.

"It is sad that therapy is not a service that has been fully normalised in this country," she added. "It is not affordable, hence a lot of Malawians are still going through with the act of suicide."

Most public facilities in Malawi are too short-staffed and underfunded to provide adequate mental healthcare, particularly during a global health crisis.

To date the country has recorded more than 5,950 coronavirus cases, including 185 deaths.

Health ministry official Immaculate Chamangwana said psychiatric practitioners in public hospitals were often asked to help out in overwhelmed maternity and paediatric wards even before the pandemic.

"These people are not only concentrating on mental health," Chamangwana told AFP, adding that all hospital workers were given basic mental healthcare training to compensate.

Malawian expert Gerald Namwaza, a researcher for the UK-based MentalCare charity, said coronavirus had aggravated the suffering of patients who already faced discrimination and stigma.

"In Malawi... people with mental health issues are oftentimes ridiculed and side-lined," Namwaza said.

"They are vulnerable and at high risk of committing suicide when sent in isolation due to coronavirus," he added.

"It becomes a double jeopardy for them."