By Tyler Holmes
When the novel coronavirus began to spread around the globe, Malawians, feeling their isolation from the world, argued that the virus, not officially in the country until April 2, 2020, was yet another ploy to delay a change in leadership. Due to a court order, a planned April lockdown never happened, elections were held in June, and the virus faded almost immediately after a mask mandate was promulgated in early August.
This year has been different however, with a second wave fuelled by the holiday spread of the South African variant of the disease. Through late February, three times as many official cases have been identified in 2021 as there were in 2020. And police warnings about using force to affect the lockdown have come true in beatings and arrests.
In Malawi, the COVID-19 pandemic was far from the biggest story or concern of 2020. President Arthur Peter Mutharika won the election with only 36.4 percent of the vote in 2014 and appeared to win re-election with only 38.6 percent in 2019. The Tripartite Elections of 2019 were riddled with accusations of fraud, as many tally sheets were amended with correction fluid (Tippex) in the counting process and the Malawi Election Commission (MEC) did little to respond to complaints.
Malawians took to the streets beginning in June 2019, calling for the MEC Chair to resign. The protests were the first sustained demonstrations in almost a decade. In August 2019, the leading opposition candidates—Member of Parliament Lazarus Chakwera and Vice President Saulos Chilima, who earned a combined 55.6 percent of the vote—filed a lawsuit challenging Mutharika’s re-election. On February 3, 2020, after months of trial streamed to the public on the radio, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the applicants and ordered a rerun by July 3. In the wake of the ruling, the opposition unified, with Chakwera as their standard bearer.
The overarching need for the election of a majority government drowned out individual causes as well as a virus response. In a survey between May and June 2020, 75 percent of Malawians said the fresh presidential election should be held on July 2 despite the virus, and 67 percent of Malawians worried politicians were using the pandemic to increase their power or enrich themselves (which was February 2021’s leading story).
This clear focus on the presidential election was given further steam when opposition members of parliament and activist groups obtained an injunction against the attempted April lockdown. After all, few Malawians have the capacity to stop going about their daily business. Prevention efforts faded and were largely disregarded in May and June. On June 23, Malawians got the election they so desired.
After the announcement of Chakwera’s election win (59.9 percent to Mutharika’s 39.3 percent), Malawi started to focus on a diverse set of priorities, including preventative measures against the spread of COVID-19. Returnees from South Africa and election rallies had kicked up the virus to the extent that a planned inauguration ceremony on Independence Day never took place. But shortly after a mask mandate was promulgated in early August, the virus seemed to disappear (there were as few as 30 active cases on December 9 and 10).
Turn the page to this year, when the virus took center stage. The uptick in cases began little by little the week before Christmas, but hit in earnest on December 30. In all of 2020, there were 6,583 cases and 189 deaths. In January 2021, there were 17,380 cases and 513 deaths. February saw over 7,143 more cases and 322 more deaths (see Feb 23 data). But in addition to lives, livelihood, and an impact on mental health, response to the virus has taken incalculable dignity from poor Malawians.
On January 10, President Chakwera dusted off regulations not enforced for five months: “We must keep each other safe by obeying guidelines, including early closures of drinking places and restrictions on public gatherings, which many are still violating.” To the president’s credit, he admitted he, too, had been lax. He had to know he was letting the police off their leash, though.
At Lilongwe Model Police Station, where I spent most days before the pandemic and still spend hours each week, mass arrests for violators began on or before January 14 under the holding charge of “endangering lives,” which, on later dates, was just listed as COVID-19. When police failed to find COVID violations, they looked to use another petty offence, as frequent arrests were made for illegal vending, conduct, and idle and disorderly.
In 38 days, 620 people were arrested for COVID-related offences and another 100 for other petty offences in Lilongwe alone. As our friend and colleague Victor Mhango, the executive director of the Centre for Human Rights, Education, Aid and Assistance (CHREAA) put it, these are disproportionately people who cannot afford masks. Arrests have taken place around the country: at Dowa, Kasungu, Limbe (in Blantyre), and Nkhotakota, for example. Street connected children were rounded up, too.
Police said they would use force to make these arrests, and they did. Police mobile service unit officers, the police’s responders to protests and other mass gatherings, enforced the regulations with sticks and similar weapons. Complaints about police brutality came in from a variety of sources, with the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) alleging police beatings, one individual sharing a video of police abuse at the minibus depot in Lilongwe Area 3, and a journalist complaining about similar treatment only about 600 metres from the depot.
There are again signs the virus might be receding, but police activity can threaten that trend. The daily checklist completed at the Lilongwe police station reflects average daily congestion of over 145 people in an eight-cell block for the month, almost 40 people higher than December (and two to three times the averages of April through July). Officers have complained about the situation at other stations, too. Other than suspects and officers, there are visitors, too, as the police do not provide food to suspects. There are hundreds of people who could be exposed to any one person who is COVID-positive.
And there has been some COVID-19 testing (even a little last year) in police custody, resulting in several suspects going to Maula Prison’s quarantine center (typically the women’s section), including two children. Imprisonment of children is against the law, even if an expected result in these circumstances.
In addition to continual data collection and internal advocacy efforts, we have shared these findings with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Women Lawyers Association (WLA) for litigation on (COVID) arrests against children and advocacy against indiscriminate arrests by the police called sweeping exercises. These practices are systemic remnants of the colonial system and have been part of our work before the pandemic and will remain after. The challenge is to move the police closer to their 2020 better angels and away from this 2021 abhorrence.