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This picture was taken in January 2021, as part of an assignment to photograph a Covid-19 ward at Queen Elizabeth Central hospital in Blantyre, southern Malawi. Malawi registered its first Covid-19 case in April 2020, but despite the many challenges the country had in controlling the pandemic, the spread of the virus was slower than in many other countries.

In 2020, life was almost normal – there were no lockdowns, markets and other public spaces were open. Then in January 2021, Malawi experienced its biggest surge in Covid cases, with the cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe accounting for most of the total.

In that month alone, there were more Covid deaths than the whole of 2020. This was the first time I saw the country terrified of Covid. Hospitals were under pressure, there was a critical shortage of oxygen and patients were dying.

In the photograph, a health worker is seen taking an oxygen cylinder to a Covid-19 ward. I chose this picture because it was taken at a time when there was a critical shortage of oxygen and I tried to capture that sense of urgency. While one patient was dying for lack of oxygen, this cylinder carried another’s life.

I also chose it because the day I took this photograph was one of my most challenging and difficult as a photojournalist. Despite the risk of infection while working in Covid wards, it was also the day I saw firsthand how cruel the disease is. Corridors at the hospital were filled with broken relatives who had come to collect the bodies of their dead.

While other journalists worked from home, it was impossible for me as a photojournalist – I had to be where the action was, even if it meant risking my life.

Thoko Chikondi is a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Malawi.

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