A three-week lockdown due to begin in Malawi this weekend has been suspended following a high court decision that the government had not made enough provision to stop poor people going hungry.
The ruling, the first successful legal challenge to the concept of a lockdown in Africa, adds to a growing debate on the continent about the trade-offs between shutting down economic activity and saving lives.
In Africa, there have been relatively few reported deaths from coronavirus, with just over 1,000 so far. But the economic consequences of the virus have been palpable as people have been prevented by anti-pandemic measures from earning a living and from leaving often cramped accommodation where social distancing is impossible.
On Friday, Malawi’s high court ordered a seven-day suspension after the government’s planned three-week lockdown was challenged by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, a civil society group.
“We are not against the fight against pandemic,” the rights group said. “But we see gaps which the government needs to rectify,” it said, adding that measures needed to be taken to prevent hunger when large food markets were closed.
Malawi has recorded only 17 cases of the virus with two deaths, but the southern African country of 18m people is one of the most densely populated and poorest in the region, leading to concern that the virus could quickly spread.
The pushback against the lockdown in Malawi reflects concerns throughout a continent of 1.2bn people, where the virus has been slow to take hold but the economic impact is already biting.
Governments throughout Africa have tried to impose lockdowns with varying degrees of success. In South Africa and Rwanda, lockdowns have been near-complete. Kenya is among several countries to cobble together restrictions including social distancing, compulsory mask-wearing and a curfew.
Kennedy Odede, a grassroots organiser in Kenya, said there was little appetite for lockdowns in the tightly packed informal urban settlements where he works. “They are telling me we better die from corona than die from hunger,” he said.
“Every theory we are hearing now comes from the developed world,” he added. “Social distancing means you must have three weeks food in the fridge. Clean your hands means you must have water and soap.”
Patrick Gathara, a political commentator in Nairobi, said Kenyans did not have sufficient faith in the government to follow stringent measures that deprived them of a livelihood.
Nor, he said, did the idea of buying time through a lockdown make sense if the majority of the population had little prospect of ever accessing sophisticated healthcare, such as ventilators. Malawi has seven ventilators and 25 intensive care unit beds, according to NGOs.
“The idea of flattening the curve assumes you have health systems that can cope and you don’t want them overwhelmed,” Mr Gathara said. “But what happens if, under the normal scenario, your health systems are already overwhelmed?”
Dele Olojede, a Nigerian journalist living in Stellenbosch, South Africa, said he was impressed by how organised and decisive the government in Pretoria had been. But lockdowns could not last long in the economically deprive townships and informal settlements, he said.
“If you just say isolate and don’t provision for people who need to scrounge a living every day, then you are likely to get a disaster: an explosion of virus and an explosion of rebellion.”
In Malawi, under measures to close non-essential businesses, the lockdown would have closed large informal food markets that cater to the poorest. Smaller venues would have opened with limited hours.
In the days before the court ruling, vegetable sellers and other traders took to the streets in cities across Malawi to protest. Many said that the coronavirus was less of a threat than hunger.
Peter Mutharika, Malawi’s president, declared the lockdown in the midst of an intense political crisis after the country’s highest court overturned his re-election last year as suspect. A rerun has been ordered for July.