The coronavirus has not only spread fear and suffering in its wake but has posed dilemmas to every society that has had to reckon with it. One is the trade-off between health and wealth. A lockdown has proved to be an effective way of protecting the health of a population but it comes at a high cost as large sections of the economy grind to a halt. The dilemma does not go away as the judgement has to be made as to when and how to ease out of the lockdown.
In Malawi this dilemma is particularly acute since many citizens have no reserves to fall back on, nor does the Government have means to support the population through a time when business activity is suspended. Hence the Government’s announcement of a lockdown to begin at midnight tonight was met with widespread dismay. The intention to control and contain the spread of coronavirus is appreciated but for people who live from hand to mouth, the suspension of all business activity is more scary than the virus. So local traders here in Zomba took to the streets yesterday with their message: “Zomba No Rock Down” (“L” and “R” are practically indistinguishable in Bantu languages.)
Later the same day the High Court granted an injunction requested by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition and issued a stay-order of 7 days on the imposition of the lockdown. The HRDC make it clear that they are not opposed to the lockdown in principle but they argue that it must include provisions that enable citizens to sustain their daily life while it is in force.
The crisis has also posed a dilemma to faith-based organisations. In much of Africa the instinctive response to any crisis is for people to come together to pray. Tanzania’s President John Magufuli represents this approach with his insistence that churches must continue their services of worship, looking to God for deliverance. Malawi too puts great emphasis on the importance of prayer at such a time but has acknowledged the risk that large religious gatherings could accelerate the spread of the virus. Hence since 23 March congregations have been limited to 100 and this number is due to fall to 10 in the event of a lockdown. Some churches, like Nkhoma Synod, have taken the line that churches should be closed and members encouraged to pray at home, with provision of Bible studies and other materials through social media.
Might lockdown prove to be a time of spiritual retreat and renewal?