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Experts weigh in on lockdown

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The Society of Medical Doctors (SMD) has spoken against a strict lockdown as a measure to fight the spread of the coronavirus, arguing it would not be in the interest of overall public health in the country.

SMD says despite that a lockdown may be responsible for reducing the spread of the virus, there is potential for significant harm.

The society was directed by the High Court to make a submission of the doctors’ expert opinion or evidence in a case where government’s declaration of the lockdown was challenged by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) and other parties.

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The case was certified by Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda as a constitutional matter and is being handled by a panel of three High Court judges.

In its submission which we have seen, SMD argues that potentially fatal and other negative unintended consequences of a lockdown include widespread economic disruption, hunger and increased domestic and state actor violence.

“Large numbers of pregnant women in need of maternal care, children requiring vaccinations, and patients with chronic illnesses such as HIV, tuberculosis, diabetes and hypertension depend on functional health services, with substantial individual and public health consequences if access is disrupted.

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“These consequences of lockdown have been observed in both high and low income countries… Newspaper reports in this country have quoted immigration officials at Mwanza Border saying that they have been receiving on average 25 dead bodies weekly of Malawian nationals from South Africa,” SMD says in its submission.

The doctors argue that the “unusual” numbers may be due to lack of access to health services and escalating economic hardships inflicted by the Covid-19 lockdown in that country.

On the other hand, SMD admits that there is evidence that lockdowns have worked in many European and countries reducing the spread of the virus while other countries have witnessed surges in Covid-19 cases whilst on lockdown.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Attorney General (AG) has asked the three judges hearing the lockdown case to adopt a ‘precautionary approach’ to allow the minister of Health to declare a lockdown where necessary.

State advocate Neverson Chisiza asked the court to allow the minister to declare a lockdown in strategic places or any others place the minister deems important as an immediate intervention of the crisis.

Chisiza added that they have established that the lockdown issue does not pass the limitation test under section 44 of the Constitution as some of the provisions of the lockdown are unreasonable and contravene section 58 (2) of the Constitution.

“We have also established that at the time of the declaration of the lockdown, the funds in the Response Plan had not been advanced to the intended beneficiaries, the poor, both in urban and rural areas. Therefore, it cannot be said that social security interventions had been implemented before the said declaration,” Chisiza said.

The AG’s office further posits that the Minister of Health has a mandate to implement the Covid-19 Rules even though they were not laid down before Parliament as per section 58 (1) of the Constitution as long as the said Rules were gazetted.

“My Lord and My Ladies, our submission is that the Covid-19 Regulations are Constitutional and that the laying down before Parliament can happen at any time. The Legal Affair Committee, after scrutinising the same can strike them down or uphold them,” reads part of the submission.

Lawyer for HRDC Sullivan Kagundu said they have prayed to the court to declare the Public Health Rules illegal as they allegedly violate section 58, subsection 1 and 2 of the Constitution.

The Covi-19 rules were gazetted in April this year as a way of controlling the spread of the pandemic which infected over 3,000 people out of which at least 74 have died.

In challenging the measures, HRDC and others argued that the promulgation did not take into consideration vulnerable Malawians’ socio-economic rights, among other things.

The three judges are expected to make their determination on the matter having now received the submissions.

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