21 April 2020
As of 19 April Malawi did not have any reported cases of Covid-19. The country has also not taken any measures to lockdown businesses as the country’s High Court blocked such measures in a ruling on 19 April. However, there are growing concerns among civil society organisations about the impact the virus could have in the country’s overcrowded prisons, which also house immigration detainees. Malawi’s prisons reportedly confine more than 14,000 prisoners despite having a capacity of only 5,000.
A joint statement issued by the Centre for Human Rights Advice Assistance and Education, Youth Watch Society, Paralegal Resource Centre, Southern Africa Litigation Centre and Child Rights Advocacy and Paralegal Aid Centre called on the country’s president to “release all prisoners who are serving time for minor offences including contempt of court, being idle and disorderly, being a rogue and vagabond, common nuisance and breach of the peace.” The statement also urges that priority be given “to those that are terminally ill, older persons, persons with TB and others chronic illnesses and those who have served a substantial part of their sentences” and urges “ the President to prevent the detention in prison of all migrants who are detained on immigration-related charges.”
According to the International Detention Coalition (IDC), its local members in Malawi have raised concerns about migrants being “swept up” in four detention centres that were reportedly opened for quarantine purposes. After 14 days, migrants are to be transferred to immigration detention centres and prisons. IDC members have mentioned that conditions in Malawi’s detention centres are inhumane and inadequate as there is a lack of access to water or soap in the cells where migrants are being forced to stay.
On 9 April 2020, a visit to Zomba Central Prison revealed that the facility has six buckets used by thousands of prisoners who wash their hands without soap. It is reported that new inmates are only being screened for HIV and TB but not Covid-19, which increases the risk of spread of Covid-19. One of the inmates expressed concern about the situation: “We were warned about coronavirus by the prison authorities. They advised us that we must wash hands regularly. My duty is to see that new detainees wash their hands before being admitted to the facility. There are no coronavirus testing kits at the clinic. After they are tested for TB and HIV, the new inmates are admitted and sent to the various blocks.” Malawi’s president also announced that his administration is to decongest the prisons by releasing prisoners and juveniles who committed petty offences and those having served a significant portion of their sentences for moderate crimes.
- UNICEF, “UNICEF and its partners are on the ground to respond to COVID-19 in Malawi,” 19 April 2020, https://www.unicef.org/malawi/coronavirus-disease-covid-19
- Al Jazeera, “Malawi: Workers relieved as court blocks COVID-19 lockdown plan,” 20 April 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/malawi-workers-relieved-court-blocks-covid-19-lockdown-plan-200420092511551.html
- International Detention Coalition, “Key Developments on Immigration Detention & Alternatives: Covid-19,” accessed on 21 April 2020, https://idcoalition.org/covid-19/key-developments/
- J. Chirwa, “CSOs Call for Decongestion in Malawi Prisons as Response to Covid-19,” Nyasa Times, 18 March 2020, https://www.nyasatimes.com/csos-call-for-decongestion-in-malawi-prisons-as-response-to-covid-19/
- L. Bisani, “Concerns Over Coronavirus at Overcrowded Zomba Prison,” Malawi24, 9 April 2020, https://malawi24.com/2020/04/09/concerns-over-coronavirus-at-overcrowded-at-zomba-prison/
- Victor Mhango from the Centre for Human Rights Advice Assistance and Education addressing Prisoners at Chichiri Prison, (Nyasa Times, “CSOs Call for Decongestion in Malawi Prisons as Response to Covid-19,” 18 March 2020, https://www.nyasatimes.com/csos-call-for-decongestion-in-malawi-prisons-as-response-to-covid-19/)