Malawi Can Afford A Few Things, But Perhaps Not A Lockdown

By  |  April 17, 2020

It is not uncommon in these times for a nation to lockdown. The novel coronavirus which has killed close to a thousand in Africa has made it so. Malawi’s lockdown is the latest measure in the fold.

The Southern African nation has announced that it will begin a 21-day lockdown. 2 days ago, its Health minister said the lockdown will last from April 18 to May 9, 2020.

While the confinement measure is necessary to slow down the spread of COVID-19, it may not be something the poor nation could be able to afford.


Malawi is one of the 16 landlocked nations in Africa, sharing borders with Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. Per figures from the 2018 census, the country has an estimated population of 17.5 million. The number is expected to double by 2038.

Despite making notable economic strides in the past couple of years, Malawi remains one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 173rd out of 182 countries on the Human Development Index. Structural reforms to sustain economic growth still leaves the nation mostly where it was—heavily dependent on agriculture.

Well, agric accounts for the livelihoods of nearly 80 percent of Malawians. Needless to say, the country’s economic remains vulnerable to external shocks. Agriculture contributes about 28.6 percent to its USD 7.065 Bn GDP.

Only about 12 million Malawians are living below the international poverty line (USD 1.25 a day). Approximately 14.3 million are living on less than USD 2.00 a day, according to the Rural Poverty Portal.

Informal Economy

Malawi’s lockdown mandates that all non-essential businesses would close and services would stop. As a result, informal traders took to the streets to register their displeasure and intentions to disregard the lockdown. In thousands, vendors from Mzuzu protested in the city’s council offices.

“In the case of us vendors who live from hand-to-mouth, it would cripple us,” Chancy Widoni, chairman of a 5,000-strong vendor group, told the AFP news agency. “If we close the market for even one day, then we will not be able to feed our families,” he said.

The informal sector is the backbone of Malawi’s economy. Due to unemployment being one of the country’s biggest problems, many people have turned to daily means to make a living. The sector is busy enough for the government to want to tax it to make some revenue.

The sector is not without challenges. Traders, hawkers and vendors alike are insecure and may be harassed by public officials. Not only are they subject to dangerous working conditions that result in ill health, their daily income isn’t always enough to sustain their families.

Wonderful Mkhutche, a social commentator, believes that no people in the streets and reduced trading hours means there shall be less income for already underprivileged homes, spelling economic and social disaster ahead.

Malawi’s Lockdown

There is only one doctor for every 50,000 Malawian individuals, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Some 85 percent of the population lives in rural areas, some of which are slums. Recall that the virus stands a better chance at spreading in slums, no thanks to the lack of reliable healthcare systems.

So far, 16 cases of coronavirus have been recorded in the country. According to its government, Malawi’s lockdown would be extended after the initial 21 days if the circumstances demand so.

“If [we are] not careful, Malawi could lose up to 50,000 lives from COVID-19 [the disease caused by the new coronavirus],” President Peter Mutharika said at a news conference on this Wednesday.

For informal economies like Malawi, curfews appear to be a better option to curb the spread of COVID-19, rather than strict lockdowns. For example, Ethiopia has declared a national state of emergency, but is reluctant to impose a lockdown because it would put livelihoods at risk.

To put things into perspective, Malawi is a poorer country than Ethiopia. To reduce the toll on people, less disruptive measures can be taken. Like in South Africa, where the government has revised its lockdown institution.

Vivid Examples

Burundi, a country poorer than Malawi, seems unwilling to impose a full lockdown for the same reasons Malawian vendors are concerned about. Nevertheless, the Central African nation, has restrictions in place. The country presently has 5 confirmed cases.

But even though Algeria’s cases are now at 2,268, a curfew remains the Northern African country’s one option. This is despite the nation not being one of the poorest in Africa. Its informal economy has played a part to reduce unemployment in the country, even though the government is not moved by it.

Egypt and a league of other MENA countries appear to be together in using dusk-to-dawn curfews as opposed to stay-at-home orders. The reason, for one, could be that the governments are unwilling to disrupt people’s daily lives and put their income streams in limbo.

Malawi’s lockdown is not a measure it can entirely afford. On the first day of Liberia’s lockdown, things got off to a chaotic start. Poorer than Malawi, the country’s citizens found themselves in physical confrontations with Liberian security, lamenting that hunger would kill faster than COVID-19.

Pending tougher times, curfews are a better play for nations in the same economic boat as Malawi.

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