Malawi's Opposition Tears Apart Tonse Government 'Partial Lockdown' Virus Measures

11 August 2020

Leader of Opposition in Malawi Parliament Kondwani Nankhumwa has said the newly announced coronavirus (COVID 19 ) pandemic measures by Tonse Alliance led government are unrealistic and harsh, arguing they are not in tandem with the high levels of poverty among Malawians.

In a public statement released on Tuesday, August 11, 2020, Nankhumwa says it is the opposition's strong view that the people who were at the centre of framing and gazetting the new regulations lack the necessary knowledge of the daily struggles of most Malawians. What it also means is that the Tonse Alliance administration, led by President Lazarus Chakwera, simply disregards the heartbeat of the people it pretends to serve, he claims.

"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," wonders the Leader of Opposition.

Government gazetted new Covid-19 rules which, among other things, have made use of masks in public places mandatory to control the spread of the pandemic.

In the new rules, public gatherings have also been limited to a maximum of 10 people, including places of worship.

However, there is an exception for funerals where numbers are limited to 50 people, so too, the National Assembly and any meeting that has been convened to discuss Covid-19.

Pubs will operate operate from 2pm to 8pm, and people will only be allowed to buy on a take-away basis. Restaurants and other food outlets are to ensure social distancing for customers and operate only between 6am and 9pm.

The new rules give power to the Minister of Health to declare an area with high Covid-19 cases restricted.

In such areas, recreation centres, workplaces and other facilities will remain closed, and movement into and out of such areas will be restricted.

According to Nankhumwa, the opposition in Malawi does not agree to the measures.

"As opposition, we do not agree with the gazetted 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.

"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," reads the statement in part.

Nankhumwa argues 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."

He argues that it is "ridiculous' to expect 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.

'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," opines Nankhumwa.

The Leader of of Opposition suggests some measures that the Chakwera's administration could adopt to correct the situation. These include freeing prisoners with minor charges to decongest prisons; instituting zero charges on mobile money transfers; ordering commercial banks through Reserve Bank of Malawi to ease loan repayment conditions, targeting Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs); setting up portable water sinks in public places to encourage hand washing in all cities and towns: reducing tax rates for resident companies to avert retrenchments; cutting President and cabinet ministers' wages; halting all familiarization tours by cabinet ministers; reducing tax on all mobile phones credit and ICT services; ensuring adequate availability of Personal Protective Equipments (PPEs) for health workers; ensuring contact tracing surveillance capacity and screening services such as availability of thermo scans and laboratories; reducing pump prices for fuel to cushion the poor following the new measures on transportation; and putting all health workers, especially the COVID-19 frontline personnel, and their direct family members on reasonable health insurance.

In conclusion, Nankhumwa commends 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", he says.

Coronavirus spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes small droplets - packed with the virus - into the air. These can be breathed in, or cause an infection if you touch a surface they have landed on, then your eyes, nose or mouth.

So, coughing and sneezing into tissues, not touching your face with unwashed hands, and avoiding close contact with infected people are important.

People will be most infectious when they have symptoms, but some may spread the virus even before they are sick.

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