onourable folks, the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be one of the greatest health crises Malawi has faced in recent history. As of the time of writing, Malawi had 33 confirmed cases of infection and three deaths.
The pandemic has proven to be an enigma that the country seems incapable of resolving at the moment. On one hand, government has to find a way to prevent contagion lest the pandemic overwhelms our weak health systems.
On the other, it seems the measures imposed to contain the pandemic are disrupting businesses and threatening people’s way of life. Restrictions on travel and imports have crippled businesses, some of which will face foreclosure and bankruptcy in the pandemic persists for an extended period.
Government, civil society organisations and all relevant stakeholders have to come together and find a rational solution to resolve the unprecedented nexus between safeguarding people’s health and their economic interests.
To date, it seems the folks at Capitol Hill have not found a universally acceptable method of dealing with the pandemic. Government’s proposal to lock down the country for three weeks drew criticism from the public amid concerns that there were no procedures to cushion the poor from the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Barely a week after the High Court temporarily restricted government from implementing the lockdown, the number of Covid-19 cases have almost doubled to 33.
Folks, that painful choices would have to be made in the short and medium term to protect Malawians lives and their economic interests was never in doubt. But we in the backbenches have to wonder if these choices are being made with merit or based on sentiment.
To begin with, government hastily imposed the lockdown without clarifying how the poorest and most vulnerable people would be cushioned from the economic fallout from Covid-19. At the time the injunction was granted, government had not even started a review process to identify those who would need support in this time of crisis.
It begs the question on how government intends to use its ‘cushions’ when it does not even know who would needs support. History has shown that, more often than not, initiatives to protect the poor usually end up benefitting party loyalists and unprincipled bureaucrats at the expense of the vulnerable.
Then there is the decision to challenge the lockdown on the basis that most Malawians live hand to mouth and cannot afford to stay at home for three weeks. Apparently, the damage caused by a lockdown would far surpass the benefits of preventing the spread of Covid-19.
Folks, without taking any merit from this argument, the backbencher strongly feels that a lockdown would have been the best course of action at the time. Malawi would have been better served by restricting movement to prevent contagion.
Policymakers have a moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable at all times. But blocking the injunction was not the best way of protecting them. That line of thinking is based on an erroneous assumption that the poor would face either Covid-19 or hunger, but not both.
Folks, the vulnerable segments of the population who need protection from hunger in the event of a lockdown, also happen to be the very same people who would suffer the most should the country be struck by an uncontrolled outbreak.
The poor—the injunction is meant to protect—usually live in enclosed and small houses in rural and peri-urban areas, where social distancing would be very difficult to implement. Not forgetting that the lack of potable water renders basic hygiene such as hand-washing a luxury.
An uncontrolled contagion in these overcrowded locations would likely cause far more devastation that any hunger they would face for 21 days. More so when one considers that health care systems in those areas are poorly equipped to handle a full-blown pandemic.
This is definitely not the time to be making decisions based on political sentiments. This is the time for reason. Protecting the poor from hunger and exposing them to death by coronavirus still leaves someone dying because of an ill-advised policy direction.
A more prudent course of action would be to weigh the cost of an outbreak in those clusters and weigh that against the economic fallout from containment measures such as lockdowns and restrictions on travel.
The best containment measures will be found somewhere between those extremes. Making decisions on sentiment will cost us a lot of human life.