A Malawi high court on Friday granted a temporary injunction against the the government’s 21-day coronavirus lockdown period due to start on Saturday, pending a judicial review within seven days.

Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda set aside the lockdown in response to a challenge by the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), which argued that more consultation was needed to prevent harm to the poorest and most vulnerable of society.

Small-scale traders, often young people, had been staging protests in the three major cities against the lockdown plan, carrying placards declaring that it would be better to contract the virus than die of hunger because they are unable to work.

Most of those protesting called on the government to provide them with cash and food hand-outs if a lockdown went ahead.

Presidential Press Secretary Mgeme Kalirani told Reuters that the president’s office had noted the judgment and continued to see the lockdown as the way to save lives by minimising further spread of the coronavirus.

“Since the injunction obtained is a temporary relief pending judicial review, our expectation is that our civil, society and the courts will be guided by the law and what is in the best interest of Malawians when the matter finally comes for a hearing and determination, and nothing else,” Kalirani said.

“We can only hope that by the time the HRDC and the courts finalize dealing with the matter in court, it shall not be too late for all of us to effectively contain the spread of the virus and save lives.”

All non-essential businesses and services were to cease operating during the lockdown, which was due to end on May 9.

Malawi joined other southern African nations in announcing a three-week lockdown on Tuesday, with President Peter Mutharika saying if authorities were not careful, up to 50,000 lives could be lost.

Nyirenda’s ruling ran parallel to that of Health Minister Jappie Mhango who announced at a briefing that the number of coronavirus cases had risen to 17 from 16. The latest case is of a 70-year old Blantyre businessman of Asian origin.

While African countries have far fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 than elsewhere in the world, they have little testing capacity and most people have scant access to modern healthcare, meaning the risk of major virus outbreaks is high.

Mhango, who chairs Malawi’s Cabinet committee overseeing its response to the pandemic, said three of the 17 coronavirus patients were recovering and could soon be declared cured.

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