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Covid-19, Food and Politics: Chilima Could Have Emerged as A True Leader

A tweet from United Transformation Movement (UTM) President and Malawi’s Vice President, Saulos Chilima, loudly denounced Malawi Government’s 14 April 2020 order to shut down Malawi for a period of 21 days, effective the night of Saturday, 18 April. This followed a rise in confirmed Covid-19 cases (then, standing at 16) and two related deaths of individuals whose connections have the potential to infect thousands more. Only essential services defined by the Government’s Covid-19 Taskforce would be left to run. Today, Malawians would have been starting a second day under the lock down. With no mention of how the millions in Malawi who will only eat if they work on the day, and others who are destined, by their simple affiliation to being Malawian, to have it hard to eat anything at all, many men, women and children living under precarious circumstances would have been wondering where their next meal would come from before today is over.

Mr. Chilima is right to call Peter Mutharika and his government out for not taking the necessary precautions in ordering the shutdown of all economic activities, much in Malawi which are a daily lifesaver that keeps his boss’ quotidian worries away from the vulnerabilities that linger on the margins of a blowout every single of Mr. Mutharika’s days. Mr. Mutharika must listen to his estranged Veep if the intention is to save Malawi from an unknown enemy.

In swallowing such advice, there’re a few considerations and worries that this website notes of for both parties.

The Malawi Government was right to order a lock down. As many other African countries have rightly done, it was also correct to give Malawians enough time possible before the order came into effect in order for those that could stock up to do so. They were wrong to not consider the peculiar circumstances associated with our Malawi, as much of Malawi would still not have had the purchasing power to rush to Chipiku, Shoprite or even to the main market to buy maize flour and dried fish. Food access, whether through subsidies or food markets, should have been the primary consideration Mr. Mutharika ought to have made in outlining the measures of restricted movement of the masses expected to last 21 whole days. This was a better and more justifiable way to offer a subsidy than run a failing farm input subsidy program.

But mistakes, many not strange to Mr. Mutharika’s style of leadership, are expected in such crucial times and it would have been in the Veep’s court to not just criticize but offer his wisdom. If his boss would not take it, then he could bark through the many media platforms we have that would expose not only Mr. Mutharika’s shortcomings but also the foresight that he and his Taskforce are unwilling to take heed of.

Yet, this website is also troubled by the nature of Mr. Chilima’s call out. Knowing that even in his social media messaging, Mr. Chilima’s eloquence remains unusually admirable, he used the faces of poorer people of Malawi’s squatter and less serviced towns across the country as the major preoccupation of his Tweet to a seemingly political gain. His Twitter rant hardly offers an alternative to the menu of solutions his boss is offering to the growing desperation Malawians face. The Veep’s message is noncommittal to whether a more comprehensive solution to people’s limited access to food (and supplies) is needed or not. Most importantly, he doesn’t communicate how food can be delivered to those that need it under a lock down scenario.

Furthermore, he doesn’t share a stand on whether Malawi needs a lock down immediately, if she didn’t already need one yesterday.

By not directing Malawi towards a solution for the heightened vulnerability that restricted mobility imposes on millions of Malawians, the likely pragmatism that Malawians will seek will rather be to maintain the status quo. This is careless in the face of a pandemic on the rise. So, of course, Gift Trapence of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) was emboldened to apply for a court injunction, which High Court Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda conditionally granted on Friday, 17 April 2020. On Sunday, 19 April, UTM supporters were out in the streets chanting a call for their Chilima to save them, again something the UTM proudly took to Twitter (a video of demonstrators can be found on this link). The seven days that Justice Nyirenda has given may offer an opportunity to bring all parties together to chart a path that may offer a more wholesome solution to Malawi’s growing plight on a total shutdown. But it is also likely to deal a devastating blow to the country’s state of health as Covid-19 cases remain in the open.

Where does one draw the line between responsibility and recklessness?

The lack of judgement – or sheer humanity – on the part of Mr. Mutharika’s government is unfathomable. Indeed, even where he put ADMARC in charge of maize purchases at commercial prices, this was not intended for those that would have little or no cash to buy food when they lost an income. It was simply meant for those that must sell surpluses on a market that is supposedly fair. And if corruption in Malawi’s commodity markets is anything to go by, lumping thousands of tonnes of maize in the hands of ADMARC may be just a threat to the economy as great as Covid-19. We argued against Mr. Mutharika’s ostensibly great inclination towards the interests of the private sector above of the lives of millions of Malawians (read article here).

Knowing all these shortfalls, Mr. Chilima should, by now, have offered a clear plan of action that is tendered to Mr. Mutharika in one way or the other. It’s unfortunately not a solution that he must start thinking about after causing unnecessary excitement now. The best time to have done that – and demonstrate true leadership – was when Mr. Mutharika left the podium that announced the lock down.

Nonetheless, our current situation remains as precarious as when Peter Mutharika made his third national address on Covid-19, if not worse. So, it’s not too late to rise to the challenge, Mr. Vice President.



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