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The Coronavirus Diaries: Tough Dilemmas

The Coronavirus Diaries: Tough Dilemmas

Wednesday April 29 2020

Continuing the series of updates from Church of Scotland partners around the world, the Rev Dr Kenneth Ross reports from Malawi, where people in lockdown face a struggle to survive.

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. Then 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 on  April 18 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 requirement to stay at home and the suspension of all business activity is even more scary than the virus. So local traders in my home town of Zomba took to the streets on April 17 with their message: “Zomba No Rock Down” (“L” and “R” are practically indistinguishable in Bantu languages.) Similar demonstrations occurred in all the main cities of the country.

Later the same day the High Court granted an injunction requested by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition and issued a stay-order of seven 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 Court is due to determine the case on April 29 and the outcome is awaited with much concern.

Meanwhile the number of coronavirus cases has been steadily rising and has now reached 34, including three deaths by the time of writing (April 26). People can appreciate the value of a lockdown but wonder how they will survive from day to day. A common sentiment is that it is better to take your chances with COVID-19 than face certain death through hunger.

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 March 23 congregations have been limited to 100, and this number is due to fall to ten in the event of a lockdown. Some churches have been highly anxious to continue their services of worship while others 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.

Tough dilemmas for sure. Yet in Malawi it is also a time of faith as many people express their confidence in God in face of the pandemic. Might this crisis period prove to be a time of spiritual retreat and renewal?

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