A high court in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe has dismissed an application by a civil society group aimed at stopping the government from implementing mandatory Covid-19 vaccines.
“As of now we still have to analyse the whole document then sit down to discuss the way forward,” said lawyer Oscar Taulo after Thursday's ruling, adding that they can take the case to the Supreme Court.
Taulo represents the Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives (CDEDI) and freelance journalist Mundango Nyirenda, who brought the case to court.
Attorney General Thabo Chakaka Nyirenda said the case was thrown out because health minister Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda’s announcement was an intention, not a requirement.
“You can’t sue based on intention,” said Nyirenda.
“We don’t have policy on mandatory vaccination because for that to be effective there has to be a process,” he added.
That apparently wasn’t the case in December, when both CDEDI and Nyirenda filed their application after Chiponda announced government plans to make Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for frontline staff.
Such staff included health workers, civil society and journalists.
"Accumulating data is continuing to indicate that the majority of those being admitted to our emergency treatment units or losing their lives to Covid-19 have not been vaccinated,” said Chiponda, justifying the decision.
Anger at vaccine requirement
Human rights groups, media organisations and legal experts questioned the legality of the decision, calling for the government to "convince" rather than "coerce" people into getting the vaccines.
CDEDI executive director Sylvester Namiwa and journalist Nyirenda also made an application to prevent private and public institutions from demanding Covid-19 certificates from employees and customers in order to access their premises.
On Thursday afternoon, dozens of opponents of compulsory vaccination stood outside court while the judgement was read.
They brandished signs reading "decisions should be based on real science", "let’s live with Covid, just like we do with Malaria and TB’, and ‘"let people’s views be heard on freedom of choice", among others.
“To be vaccinated is a choice. One has to choose whether to take it or not," said Boniface Chikanda, one of the protesters. "What I have observed is that the government wants to kill the rights of the people."
He held a sign which read "why all this censorship? Same Covid or it’s something else".
Some residents were disappointed at the decision.
“If they want to start with civil servants, then obviously the law might be extended to ordinary people like us. We’re not ready for that,” said Blantyre resident Chisomo Kapata.
Mandatory vaccines violate human rights
Some Malawians refuse to get vaccinated based on belief, and freedom of conscience and belief is protected under Section 33 and 45 of the Constitution, explained Patrick Mpaka, president of the Malawi Law Society.
“Compulsory vaccination interferes with the human right of bodily integrity, which is part of the right to private life enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Section 21 of Malawi Constitution,” said Mpaka.
The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) had also opposed the government’s plan to introduce mandatory Covid-19 vaccination saying compulsory jabs violated fundamental human rights.
Vaccination has been a contentious issue in the southeastern African nation where myths and misinformation are rife.
Data on how many health workers and other civil servants were vaccinated is hard to come by. But according to the WHO, fewer than 1.5 million of the country's 17 million total population have received a dose of the vaccine so far.
Last week, community members in the southern district of Mulanje rushed to school with weapons after hearing a false rumour that their children were being vaccinated.
There have been other attacks targeting health workers across the country.