Lies have legs in Malawi:

Reflecting on misrepresentations about COVID-19

A perspective by David Phiri

 I didn’t even bat an eyelid when I read the bald-faced lie in the opening paragraph of a news analysis penned by Golden Matonga for the Mail and Guardian last week. In the introduction, Matonga informs readers that “it took Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika a long time to address the looming threat of the Covid-19 pandemic” and that “he finally got round to it on April 14”. In an age where lies are the weapon of choice in the political fights ensuing in my country, nothing shocks me at all.

However, given the seriousness of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, one might have hoped that an award-winning journalist of Golden Matonga’s caliber would be ethical enough to respect facts, moreso when filing for one of the continent’s most respected publications. The fact is President Mutharika acted preemptively in response to the imminent threat posed by coronavirus as he declared a state of national disaster on 20 March. It was viewed in some quarters as a premature move that drew quips such as the Quartz Africa article about how a country with no coronavirus cases had declared a national disaster, shut down schools and banned large gatherings. President Mutharika’s decision was met with cynical side eyeing, as he was perceived as having jumped the gun. But Matonga would have us believe that President Mutharika was twiddling his thumbs all along, before acting irrationally and announcing so-called ‘drastic measures’ out of the blue.

Matonga writes as if President Mutharika did not give an address on 02 April (Thursday) announcing the first three cases in Malawi. Thereafter on Saturday, 04 April, President Mutharika announced a range of measures highlighting that he was considering coronavirus not just as a health issue but also a social and economic one. In fact, he was deservedly praised for being practical by not rushing to announce a lockdown even when there were calls from some quarters for a lockdown at that point. The announcement on April 14 came upon the realisation that there could have been coronavirus cases, which had gone undetected in the country, and Malawians were not respecting social distancing measures.

The fact is by the time a national 21-day lockdown was announced on 15 April (it was slated to begin on 18 April); Malawi had 9 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 1 death, despite preventive measures that had already been in place since a state of national disaster was declared last month. The scheduled lockdown, which was intended to help stop the spread of COVID-19, was blocked by the Malawi High Court, which granted a 7-day injunction on 17 April. Whilst it is difficult prove direct correlation, the reality is that in those 7 days (18-24 April) the number of confirmed coronavirus cases all but doubled from 17 to 33, and there is no telling what the contact-tracing will reveal in so far as establishing how many other people potentially contracted the virus during this time. The opposition has been throwing spanners in the works where addressing COVID-19 is concerned, and Malawians are paying dearly for it.

In his report, Matonga cannot restrain himself from embellishing facts claiming that, “…in a stunning decision, the high court in Lilongwe ruled against the president, and set aside the lockdown until he had put the necessary socio-economic protection measures in place.” The reality is the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) and its co-petitioners simply went and obtained an injunction. There were no arguments put forward. As it is in Malawi, one can go to court and obtain an injunction without laying the actual grounds. That is why this injunction was only for 7 days with the government expected to argue against it after those days. The Court did not even set conditions that had to be met by the President. In fact the case was heard on 24 April, when the HRDC went to court to present its argument whilst the State opted not to counter-argue. Why then is Matonga so eager to misrepresent the facts and make it appear as if the court’s decision was a ruling against President Mutharika, when the State opted to withdraw its application to challenge the injunction being of the view that the facts were to plain to argue. According to Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale it was incumbent upon the Judiciary and the parties who were seeking the injunction to do the right thing since “the fact that the virus is out there and spreading quickly is very self-evident”.

Under the pretext of fighting for Malawians, those who filed for the injunction portrayed themselves as champions of the poor and argued that government had to first introduce measures to protect Malawians before locking down the country. The High Court injunction was sought by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) working hand in glove with the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP)’s Lilongwe North MP Monica Chang’anamuno and also backed by the partisan (i.e pro-MCP) Church and Society Programme of the Livingstonia Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s General Secretary, Reverend Levi Nyondo. These are parties who have a long history of vilifying President Mutharika, even when it is uncalled for (such as claiming President Mutharika colluded with the electoral commission to rig elections using Tippex – a claim that was disproved in court). They are not neutral actors hence their motives deserve to be placed under scrutiny. So it is beyond sloppy that a reporter of Matonga’s caliber would fail to mention that by 08 April, President Mutharika’s administration had in place a National COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan that was drawn up by the Ministry of Disaster Management Affairs and Public Events partnering with other government ministries, departments and agencies, UN agencies, the Malawi Red Cross Society (MRCS) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) who participated in its crafting. But Matonga, who chooses to conflate unrelated events to strengthen his fabricated account, ignores all this.

Matonga suggests that healthcare workers downed their tools in response to the announced lockdown, but this is patently false. The healthcare workers were protesting over their conditions of service including the availability of PPEs, and as of Monday 20 April (four days before Matonga’s piece was published), some of those grievances had been addressed including an increase of allowances for healthcare workers. Readers are informed of how market vendors were protesting because there were no measures cushioning the poor. Such a claim is misleading as it ignores the context of the lockdown and the measures put in place. These are vendors from central markets, which are eventually far much crowded than communal markets, which were designated to remain open in the event of a lockdown. Matonga was presenting a one-sided assessment that lacked nuance or appreciation of the entire social support system laid down in the lockdown rules.

Casting President Mutharika as a villain is a favorite past time for many commentators within and beyond Malawi. Little is said of how the civil society imperils the lives of our people. Gift Trapence, chairperson of the HRDC is quoted as claiming that, “We are not against the lockdown per se, we are only asking for measures that will ensure the poorest of our citizens are cushioned. [The] majority of Malawians live hand to mouth and we don’t want to solve one problem by creating another; we don’t want the people to be protected from coronavirus and left to die of hunger.” This begs the question: where are they asking these measures? Government has the measures laid down. The HRDC did not engage government; it rushed to court because they prefer engaging in political theatrics.

Had the HRDC been sincere they would have engaged government and established whether or not government really had no measures in place. They did not do that. Government would not leave people to die of hunger, moreso when the Mutharika administration has always favored a decidedly pro-poor developmental approach with the introduction of a range of subsidies that helped the poor throughout President Mutharika’s first term in office. It is ironic that this same HRDC claiming to be fighting for the rights of ordinary Malawians who live hand-to-mouth spent the better part of last year jeopardizing the livelihoods of the same ordinary Malawians through violent protests, which they instigated and justified using the false claim that elections had been rigged. This claim was not proven in court, and to date, they have neither apologized nor shown the slightest remorse for the carnage and trail of disaster they left in the wake of their unjustifiable protests. It is laughable that Matonga should assert that it is President Mutharika, who does not have the people’s trust when the same President Mutharika was completely exonerated of any wrongdoing by the ConCourt Judges whose 500-page ruling pointed to the fact that the President was without fault.

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