While much of the world labours under strict coronavirus lockdowns, Malawi has bucked the trend after a court blocked attempts to restrict its population’s movements — much to the relief of some residents.
“Had the lockdown been implemented, we would certainly have died of hunger and not coronavirus,” second-hand clothes seller Thom Minjala said after hearing of the case.
Malawi has so far confirmed just 17 cases, including two deaths, but President Peter Mutharika has warned that without locking down the country, the virus could kill around 50,000.
Most Malawians live on less than a dollar a day, scraping together wages through informal trades or low-earning odd jobs.
“Of course, we are afraid of the disease but our number one fear is hunger,” said Minjala. “We don’t have any money to save, whatever we make from the daily sales is what feeds us for the day”.
Shortly after Mutharika announced the lockdown on Tuesday, scores of individual traders took to the streets in protest.
The Human Rights Defenders Coalition went to court and secured a seven-day order stopping the lockdown, accusing the government of a “haphazard approach”.
“What we want is a balance of human rights while fighting the pandemic. A lockdown is possible with sound measures and not the casual measures meant to foil people’s freedoms,” the coalition’s leader Gift Trapence said.
Meanwhile, the government’s concern is that the virus will continue spreading.
“In the seven days that the judge has given for the inter-parties hearing, he did not issue an order against the virus to stop spreading,” state attorney-general Kalekeni Kaphale, told local media at the weekend.
For George Mithengo, a vendor at Blantyre’s sprawling main market, the government “should have done what other countries did” such as making provision for food for the poor.
“But here they just said we are locking down. How did they expect us to survive? We could die in our homes,” he said.
The government has been accused of poor messaging with its population, who are already short on trust following the annulation of last year’s presidential polls over vote-rigging.
The authorities “really have to improve on their communication, particularly with the political situation right now. Things are very volatile,” said social activist Muthi Nhlema.
“The only way you can quell any speculation, anxiety and volatility is through regular and credible communication,” he said describing the government’s communication on the lockdown as “shambolic”.
Former attorney general Ralph Kasambara warned that “unchecked or unbridled exercise of powers by public officials masquerading as the exercise of emergency powers to protect lives may actually lead to the destruction of many more public lives”.
“Indeed if unchecked, these public emergency powers may be the beginning of tyranny,” he said.
Social and behavioural change communication expert Innocent Kommwa noted that everyone accepts COVID-19 is a serious problem, but people need to feel that they are active participants in decision making.
Otherwise, he said, people could become “disgruntled and resentful towards government”.
“Government should use all available channels to communicate with, and not to, people on prevention measures, and what the lockdown will be like, and what it will achieve,” he said.
University of Malawi psychology lecturer Limbika Maliwichi-Senganimalunje suggests the defiance being displayed by Malawians is fuelled by “the need to express grievances, which may be a result of deprivation, frustration or perceived injustice”.
With low literacy rates, she noted “a significant percentage of Malawians need more time to grasp why the lockdown is important. So there’s a need to invest in more localised ways of quickly transferring important information to the masses.”