It took Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika a long time to address the looming threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. But when he finally got around to it, on April 14, he followed in the footsteps of most other world leaders and announced drastic measures: imposing a state of disaster and a national 21-day lockdown, to begin on April 18.
The president’s announcement was not well received. Protests broke out in the streets of major cities. Doctors and nurses downed tools. The president was even sued by a civil society group, the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition, which argued that the president had not prepared an adequate safety net to protect the poor.
In a stunning decision, the high court in Lilongwe ruled against the president, and set aside the lockdown until he had put the necessary socio-economic protection measures in place.
This multi-pronged resistance to Mutharika’s efforts to contain the coronavirus can only be understood against the backdrop of Malawi’s recent political history. Many parts of Malawian society do not feel that the president has earned their trust; as a result, many do not trust him to lead the country through this crisis.
In May last year, the country of 17-million went to the polls and Mutharika was declared winner. But the opposition cried foul and turned to the streets — and the courts. Months of sometimes violent anti-government protests followed Mutharika’s re-election. And in February this year, the constitutional court vindicated the protestors. Citing widespread irregularities, the court nullified the presidential election — becoming only the second country in Africa to do so, after Kenya.
The court ordered a new vote to be held. This is scheduled for July 2, and that is what was preoccupying the national psyche when the virus showed up. It still is.
The opposition is worried that Mutharika is going to use the pandemic to delay the elections, and keep himself in power. Already, controversial electoral commission chair Jane Ansah — widely viewed as a Mutharika surrogate — has applied to have the election postponed. The courts rejected this application.
Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy at Birmingham University, says that Malawi’s leaders have used the pandemic as an excuse to infringe on democratic rights — and secure their own position.
“Critics fear they are manipulating the crisis to consolidate their own power,” he said.
But it was not Malawi’s vociferous political opposition that reacted most strongly against Mutharika’s proposed lockdown.
As soon as it was announced, market vendors across the country, and especially in the major cities of Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Blantyre, took to the streets to protest against a decision which they feared would have a devastating effect on their income. They were outraged that the measures came with no cushioning for the poor.
Days later, doctors and nurses followed suit, demanding a 70% increase on their risk allowance, which is currently at 1 800 kwacha ($2.40 or R46) a month. The country’s second largest hospital, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, was closed down — turning away pregnant women, including those with complications.
Kamuzu Central Hospital — the biggest referral hospital in the country — was left with skeleton staff because the majority of nurses and doctors opted to play games in the corridors to pass the time in a bid to force the government’s hand. Hospital staff further complained that they have inadequate protective gear and are forced to use a single mask for weeks.
According to Frackson Ngulinga, a doctor in the medical department at the hospital, the staff was angry about the government’s failure to raise the risk allowance. He described the current allowances as “ridiculous”.
“We don’t want to inflict pain on the patients but we are doing this to protect the patients themselves. We understand that the country needs our service most but this is not being appreciated because by now the president would have addressed us on the details of the increment,” Ngulinga told Mail & Guardian.
By Wednesday, three people had died of the coronavirus and a total of 23 cases had been confirmed in the country.
“We are not against the lockdown per se, we are only asking for measures that will ensure the poorest of our citizens are cushioned. [The] majority of Malawians live hand to mouth and we don’t want to solve one problem by creating another; we don’t want the people to be protected from coronavirus and left to die of hunger,” said Gift Trapence, chairperson of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, which obtained the injunction against the lockdown last week.
That decision is set to be reviewed on Friday. By then, Mutharika may have come up with a plan to alleviate the economic effects on Malawi’s poorest citizens — but it is doubtful he would have had enough time to regain their trust.