By Zione Ntaba
Malawi is not a stranger to public health crises in the last number of years, having faced a severe HIV epidemic and several cholera outbreaks continuing into 2023. Nevertheless, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a major panic in the country’s legal system and judiciary. COVID-19 brought to fruition a major ethical dilemma in ensuring the justice system’s continued functioning, while also protecting the lives of all those involved, and simultaneously ensuring the promotion and protection of human rights.
The constitutional mandate of ensuring access to justice in Malawi, a country which already struggles with effective and efficient justice delivery at the best of times, required urgent resolution, especially noting the potential of human rights violations arising from State responses to COVID-19 worldwide. Interestingly, in addition to the general need to safeguard the justice system as a whole, the pandemic itself brought before the courts issues relating to public health and human rights.
The prevailing principle in Malawi, as it is internationally, is for the judicial system to ensure that there exists an equal balance between the protection and promotion of human rights and the fair and just administration of justice. The courts in Malawi were called upon to rise above the political bureaucracy, to ensure judicial impartiality when dealing with pandemic-related issues. This was crucial in a context in which political responses to the pandemic sometimes remained unquestioned or unchallenged. However, unless these principles — of human rights and fair administration of justice — were properly upheld by the courts, sadly they may have remained in the world of the metaphysical.
It is with this context in mind that I turn to reflecting on the Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (“Principles”).