The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) urges the Malawi Police Service to respect people’s rights in the course of enforcing COVID-19 prevention measures. We do not want to see a repeat of the previous situation when police officers were harassing drivers and beating up pedestrians not wearing face masks at market places, bus depots and on the streets under the guise of enforcing Covid-19 measures.
We at CHRR fully understand the gravity of the current situation and the need for urgent responses to curb the further spread of COVID-19. However, using the Police to violently enforce COVID-19 preventive measures will not be effective and will do more harm than good. Experience from past and present epidemics like HIV and AIDS shows that responses to health crises such as COVID-19 work best in the context of community understanding, trust, cooperation and, generally, respect for human rights. People will cooperate better if they understand why they have to wear face masks or why they have to observe social distancing.
Violence may deliver short-term compliance but it cannot be part of an effective strategy to contain the Corona virus. Apart from the clear ethical issues with police brutality, the risk is that if these extreme policing measures are applied without due caution and consideration, they will eventually be resisted. Authorities need to get the public to comply and modify their behaviour, whether Police are watching or not. The public is not the enemy here – the virus is, and we need informed consent to get the kind of compliance that can turn the situation around.
Ideally, the police should be the last line of defence against the virus. Using the police as a substitute for effective public health communication and awareness not only makes this work more difficult, it undermines it completely. This is all the more important in a country like Malawi, where police officers have a record of abusive treatment, especially towards the poor and the voiceless. We remind police authorities of their pledge to respect the rule of law and human rights principles in which our governance structure is rooted. While it is true that some human rights may be limited during an emergency in order to protect public health and safety, such restrictions, according to section 44(1) of our constitution, must be prescribed by law, reasonable, recognized by international human rights standards and necessary in an open and democratic society.
Therefore, to ensure that Malawi complies with its human rights obligations during this pandemic, the government should urgently lead efforts to end abuses by police forces. We particularly urge the Ministry of Homeland Security to send a clear, unambiguous message that human rights violations will not be tolerated and that all allegations of excessive use of police force will be promptly and impartially investigated and those responsible will be held to account.