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Malawi Police Clash with Vendors Protesting Coronavirus Lockdown

FILE - A butcher cuts meat at his shop on the streets of an open-air market on the outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi, May 18, 2019.
FILE - A butcher cuts meat at his shop on the streets of an open-air market on the outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi, May 18, 2019.

Police in Malawi used tear gas Friday to disperse hundreds of market vendors chanting anti-government slogans and burning tires to protest a 21-day coronavirus lockdown scheduled to start Sunday.

The lockdown will shut down all non-essential businesses and services for three weeks, including large markets where street vendors make a living. Smaller markets will be allowed to stay open between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The restrictions aim to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected 16 people in Malawi and killed two.

Maltida Ligowe, a vegetable seller at the main Limbe market in Blantyre, says without a place to sell her goods, she will only get poorer.

While she says President Peter Mutharika made a good decision, she believes he could have appreciated the poverty that is in their country. Ligowe says the poor cannot withstand a 21-day lockdown.

Malawi's protesters have petitioned city authorities to give them food and money to sustain them until the markets reopen.

Health rights activist Dorothy Ngoma says the lockdown is likely to create food shortages and child malnutrition among poor families.

"Much as I would really love to see this lockdown materialize, but as we do that, the children are going to die," she said. "What are we going to do? We have few cases yes, but the government hasn't put any packages to make sure that they don't die. I am not surprised and if they were in the street protesting, I would definitely join them to protest."

Political analyst Vincent Kondowe said the protests could have been avoided if authorities had consulted with the public.

"They could have taken an effort to reach out to the people and could have taken a participatory and consultative process, maybe through the chiefs, and explore locally-based solutions," Kondowe said.

Malawi government spokesperson Mark Bottom told a local radio station Friday that authorities would engage with the vendors to help them understand the importance of the move in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Malawi's government was due Friday to announce support measures for the poor during the lockdown.

Mutharika said the restrictions would last until May 9, but could be extended if the coronavirus outbreak was not brought under control.