These are difficult times. The second wave, or new strain of the Covid-19 pandemic, as some public health officials are arguing, is hitting the country hard.
In its wake, it has ravaged, by Friday, some 10 495 Malawians from all walks of life—students, academics, politicians, police officers, teachers, doctors, nurses, businesspersons, government bureaucrats, chiefs, church pastors, everyone.
On Tuesday, in one of the darkest days in the country’s history, as a sombre President Lazarus Chakwera told a grieving and terrified nation, after two Cabinet ministers died within hours, we have entered “the eye of the pandemic”.
In the early morning hours, Lingson Belekanyama, Local Government Minister and long-time Malawi Congress Party (MCP) lawmaker—“foot soldier” for his party as described by former Minister, parliamentarian and journalist Ken Lipenga, breathed his last.
By noon, the nation was mourning the death of Muhammad Sidik Mia, the second highest ranked official in President Chakwera’s party—a man accredited for bankrolling the party’s activities in recent past, like few others, and a man, ultimately, to be remembered fondly for sacrificing ambition to be the country’s vice-president—enabling the country’s oldest political establishment to finally leave the doldrums of opposition politics and have a chance to govern again—thanks to formation of a formidable alliance with Saulos Chilima’s UTM.
And here’s why its Mia’s death that really sent tremors of fear to the public. It came just hours after Belekanyama’s—several other Cabinet ministers were known to have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and still sick; and it was culmination of a day’s death toll that included so many public figures.
And there is another reason Mia’s death felt a bit overwhelming for friends and foes alike. If there are Malawians out there with resources to beat back ordinary diseases, Mia’s purported riches would buy him the best available healthcare in the whole universe. But these are unusual times and this is unusual disease.
The virus can hit the rich and poor alike. For now, the virus has no cure. The vaccine is not yet in this country, too. It’s an enemy with odds stuck against us, rich or poor.
It is in that context; a panicking nation craved and demanded Chakwera to address it. And when he did, a nation still in shock, still puzzled, still afraid, was divided over whether the President’s remarks were assuring enough.
Reading the reactions to the President’s speech, I sat down and digested the reaction, I wondered whether anything said, at all, could’ve been assuring or just saved to provide a fake veneer of security and pacify restless hearts that something was being done.
I wondered what those dismissing the speech as ‘empty’ would really have found comfort in a populist speech full of kneejerk declarations that could have exposed the President as driven by the emotion loss of colleagues and not any concrete reasoning. The irony is, it’s precisely for calling for experts to revisit carefully the country’s current Covid-19 measures, that folks deemed it fit to criticise him.
But if there was anything re-assuring about Chakwera’s address, to me, knowing that no country, rich or poor, has a blueprint that can stop the pandemic or at least, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy that can work in all countries, was a President, a mere mortal like us all, who while mourning his friends, and equally frightened by the anguish of the nation, was calm and measured enough to ask for experts’ guidance.
That was leadership. Yet, detractors, still searched for a pound of his flesh.
As high as the need for political accountability, this, though, is not time for politics. Former president Peter Mutharika was magnanimous in his condolence message and offer of support to his successor’s government. UDF’s Atupele Muluzi has mourned each loss as if it’s a member of his party. That, too, is leadership.
This is the time for the country to unite in face of a vicious virus. This is not time for petty politics, settling scores or sawing discord among Malawians; among faith groups; or tribe—as some wannabe religious zealots, seeing opportunity in the chaos of maddening untimely deaths are attempting. Nor is this time to entertain wild conspiracy theories that can only undermine the fight against the virus. This is the time for unity, for leadership, for courage. For big ideas. For prayer.