Malawi court indefinitely bars virus lockdown

Malawi Police officers stand by outside Lilongwe High Court in Lilongwe, Malawi.
Malawi Police officers stand by outside Lilongwe High Court in Lilongwe, Malawi.
AMOS GUMULIRA / AFP

Malawi's High Court on Tuesday extended indefinitely an order barring the government from imposing a 21-day coronavirus lockdown which was announced by President Peter Mutharika earlier this month.

The court had initially placed a temporary block on the stay-at-home order, after a human rights groups filed a petition against the lockdown.

The Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) argued that the government had failed to announce any measures to cushion the poor and vulnerable from the effects of the lockdown which had been due to start on April 19.

But in an address to the nation late on Tuesday, Mutharika caved and announced an emergency cash transfer programme targeting 172 000 households with a monthly $50 grant for six months beginning in May.

"Coronavirus is... also an economic problem. It is affecting our businesses and livelihoods," Mutharika warned.

He added that those who deny its existence "must be sent to the mental hospital or to a lunatic asylum."

The initial order blocked the shutdown for seven days, pending a judicial review.

Following that review, High Court judge Kenyatta Nyirenda extended the ban for a further five days.

On Tuesday he decided to refer the case to the Constitutional Court because the issues raised by the petitioners required interpretation of the constitution.

Judiciary officials were unclear when the case would be brought before the Consitutional Court.

But for now Judge Nyirenda has ruled that until the constitutional court sits and makes a ruling, "there must be no lockdown," judiciary spokeswoman Agnes Patemba told AFP.

The HRDC went to court accusing the government of imposing the "lockdown without providing for social security interventions to marginalised groups".

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa. More than half of its population live below the poverty threshold.

"While we respect the health regulations regarding the lockdown, we want a lockdown that follows all... laws and we do not want rights of vulnerable groups to suffer," said independent rights activist Victor Mhango.

"The lockdown should not infringe or limit constitutional rights," he said.

Mutharika said while the lockdown matter was still before the courts, he vowed government would "proceed to do what is necessary to save lives as circumstances warrant."

Malawi has so far registered 36 coronavirus cases, including three deaths.

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