The government through the Ministry of Health has enacted and gazeted new measures for the Prevention, Containment and Management of Coronavirus, which causes the deadly COVID-19 disease.
As opposition in Malawi, we feel duty-bound to comment on these measures because this global pandemic has been decimating societies across the world, including Malawi.
Among the measures, the government has ordered mandatory wearing of face masks in public and banned public gathering of groups of more than 10 people.
As opposition, we do not agree with the gazzeted measures. Our expectation was that the Tonse Alliance government should have come up with short and medium term policy interventions to cushion people’s suffering before framing and gazetting the above harsh and unrealistic COVID-19 measures.
We are all aware that prior to the fresh elections in June 2020, the previous DPP government attempted to impose a 21-day lockdown on the country as a measure to prevent the further spread of Coronavirus, which included travel restrictions across the country and a ban of public gatherings for groups of more than 100 people.
The country erupted in arms against these measures, resulting in opposition-led mass demonstrations against the measures. Among the sticking points for the demonstrators that time was that Malawi is an informal economy with many people literally living from hand to mouth.
Those against lockdown argued that the government must first distribute money or other life essentials to the underprivileged and most vulnerable families in order to cushion against the effects of the lockdown and cover up for the lost time that people would spend staying in their homes as a result of the lockdown.
It is our belief that the new measures are a clear demonstration of how hypocritical the new government is over the plight of Malawians. Based only on political expediency, President Chakwera vehemently opposed these similar measures his government is imposing on the people today.
The new Tonse Alliance government has just imposed a partial lockdown, which is not substantially different from what the DPP imposed on the country in April this year, just five months ago. This time, there is mandatory wearing of face masks in public and a fine of MK10, 000 for not doing so.
Church gatherings of more than 10 people have been banned and funerals should not gather more than 50 people with fines going up to MK100, 000 for non-compliance.
It is an open secret that there is pervasive poverty across the country and it is wrong to think that suddenly Malawians have become rich to afford a face mask, costing in the region of MK500 above each, let alone pay a MK10, 000 fine for not wearing one. When one moves around public places in towns and villages is when they become acutely aware that it will be a huge challenge to make everyone wear a face mask in public.
It is, therefore, ridiculous to expect the same people who can hardly afford a MK500 face mask to afford a fine of up to MK10, 000 for failing to wear one in public. It is a simple fact that a lot of Malawians will not comply with this measure because they simply don’t have money to buy the masks.
It is our strong view that the people who were at the centre of framing and gazetting these by-laws lack the necessary knowledge of the daily struggles of most Malawians. What it also means is that the Tonse Alliance administration, led by President Chakwera, simply disregards the heartbeat of the people it pretends to serve.
We believe that it is foolhardy to impose mandatory wearing of masks in public without corresponding measure(s) to distribute free masks to the people, particularly the ultra-poor Malawians who cannot afford to purchase masks.
We also believe that the litany of fines for non-compliance does not make much sense. There is a fine of MK100, 000 for an assembly of more than 50 people at a funeral and a MK10, 000 for an assembly of more than 10 people at a church or prayer gathering whether outside or inside an enclosure.
Can someone say how these fines reconcile? Does that mean more than 10 people can assemble and not contract Coronavirus because it is a funeral unless they are 50? Indeed, one wonders who would be responsible for paying the imposed fine of MK100, 000 at a funeral.
As opposition, we expected that the government should have done wider consultations with relevant stakeholders on how to enact a proper and right framework to fight COVID-19 instead of taking the lone-wolf approach like it has done.
The Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) and Public Affairs Committee (PAC) have expressed displeasure over the lack of enough consultations by the government when coming up with these measures.
While we welcome the recent announcement by Minister of Health Honourable Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda that the government will engage religious leaders in further consultations, we believe that the government should cast its net wider and include other equally important stakeholders that are adversely affected by the new order.
For example, the government should come up with a more creative and relevant win-win framework for the education sector to ensure that children are also getting a semblance of education considering that they have gone almost the whole year without entering a physical classroom.
Indeed, we believe that there is a need for the Tonse Alliance government to come up with a tailor-made approach to deal with children’s education in the context of COVID-19.
We believe it is imperative to remind the Tonse Alliance government that the previous DPP government introduced, an emergency cash transfer programme to save the smalls scale businesses in and around our major markets in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Zomba and others, as a way of cushioning against the effects of COVID-19 .
This was an extended cash transfer facility to support 172,000 households in the country who depend on markets for their survival with MK35, 000 each per month as a way of dealing with the effects of lockdown and poverty.
The new government would have initiated similar and other innovative programmes to help the poor and most vulnerable rather than just waking up one morning to announce measures that are insensitive to the plight of the majority poor Malawians. By way of suggestion, government should have considered implementing the following mitigating measures:
- Freeing prisoners with minor charges to decongest prisons;
- Institute zero charges on mobile money transfers;
- Order commercial banks through Reserve Bank of Malawi to ease loan repayment conditions, targeting Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs);
- Set up portable water sinks in public places to encourage hand washing in all cities and towns.
- Reasonably reduce tax rate for resident companies to avert retrenchments;
- Cut President and cabinet ministers’ wages;
- Halt all familiarization tours by cabinet ministers;
- Reduce tax on all mobile phones credit and ICT services;
- Ensure adequate availability of Personal Protective Equipments (PPEs) for health workers;
- Ensure contact tracing surveillance capacity and screening services such as availability of thermo scans and laboratories;
- Implement cash transfer programmes to increase the number of existing beneficiaries of Mtukula Pakhomo Program in all districts in Malawi;
- Reduce pump prices for fuel to cushion the poor following the new measures on transportation; and
- Put all health workers, especially the COVID-19 frontline personnel, and their direct family members on reasonable health insurance.
We believe the above suggested measures would go a long way in creating a strong enabling environment to fight the pandemic instead of merely imposing unnecessary and punitive fines on citizens in the name of fighting COVID-19.
Indeed, much effort should be spent on sensitization of the masses on the dangers and prevention of COVID-19 in order to reduce the outbreak and save people’s lives.
In conclusion, we wish to commend the frontline soldiers against COVID-19, health workers, for their selflessness and strength in saving lives and helping the country “flatten the curve”.
We wish to appeal to the government to continue providing the health workers with necessary Personal Protective Equipments (PPEs) and improve their general working conditions.
To all fellow Malawians, let us all observe the basic COVID-19 prevention guidelines such as maintaining social distance, wearing face masks in public places, washing hands with soap regularly and simply staying at home.
HONORABLE KONDWANI NANKHUMWA, MP,
LEADER OF OPPOSITION
11 AUGUST 2020