By Parkie Mbozi
Two things have come to characterize President Edgar Lungu’s fortnightly address to the nation on the COVID 19 situation in the country and the new measures forthwith:
1. New infections reach record highs the following day and for the first time on Friday 8 May, he was announcing double digit figures.
2. The new measures go the opposite direction to most people’s expectations – relaxing other than tightening them.
Whatever the explanations for above situations is a discussion for another day and for other analysts to take up. I am staying clear of any theories that would stir up a hornet’s nest. My interest in this article is to explicate what he said overtly and what he didn’t say but implied (covertly) in the last speech in the context of our democracy, specifically on holding of intraparty and national elections.
Let’s start with what he said in plain language. The President made it clear that step by step we should revert to our normal lives and conduct most of business under the ‘new normal’. This is with the proviso that we adhere to the safety and health guidelines provided by WHO and our ministry of health. He actualized this trajectory by relaxing most of the COVID-19 preventive and containment measures that Dr Chilufya, our minister of health, announced on 18 March when the first two cases of the virus were reported.
Two weeks earlier he announced that churches could go ahead to congregate provided they adhered to the safety guidelines. This time he opened restaurants, cinemas, gymnasiums and casinos. Examination classes would re-open on 1st June. He further appealed to businesses that voluntarily closed down to revert to normal operations.
“As you are all aware, many businesses such as, hotels, lodges, tour operators, internet cafes, as well as, event management companies, were voluntarily closed as a result of the COVID-19, so as to protect themselves, their employees, as well as their clients. I, therefore, wish to appeal to the proprietors to consider the possibility of getting back to normal operations while observing public health guidelines, regulations and certification.”
The most profound statement to many of us was that, “The “new normal” means living with COVID-19 just like we have lived with other diseases such as, malaria, hiv (HIV) and aids (AIDS), and tuberculosis, provided we adhere to the prescribed health guidelines, regulations and certification for COVID-19.”
The above statement is a clear admission that COVID 19 is here to stay and we are in for a long haul, which is true. Many countries have realized that and are beginning to open up their businesses. However, it must be pointed out that many countries that are opening up invested heavily in flattening the curve of new cases and deaths and are only doing so after achieving the benchmarks or targets (e.g. reducing the ‘reproduction’ rate or ratio of new cases to existing ones). In Zambia we are doing the exact opposite. Only time will tell if our government is doing the right thing. As I have repeatedly said on this platform, COVID-19 is a new journey no country has travelled before. Hopefully the famous saying that “you reap what you sow” will not haunt us on the day of reckoning.
Be that as it may, what the President didn’t say but implied in his ‘new normal’ typology is that beyond economic concerns, we ought to start thinking about how our democracy will operate under this dispensation. In particular, political stakeholders, especially political parties, should have by now been impressing on the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) to begin conversations about a standard blueprint for holding of intraparty and national elections under the COVID 19 ‘new normal’.
We are about 14 months to the 2021 general elections as provided for in the constitution. Do we need to wait until we have a constitutional crisis to start quarreling over how or, even worse still, whether the elections should be held? We all know that if there is anything predictable about African politics it is their unpredictability. Already Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was quoted yesterday as saying it would be unwise to hold general elections during the COVID crisis. So, Africa must brace itself for possible postponement of general elections under the guise of risks posed by COVID 19. Nothing should be taken for granted.
As a matter of fact, electoral activities were never banned in this country due to the COVID 19 pandemic. Not a single of the President’s three COVID 19 speeches ever banned political activities. By implication, suspension of political activities was voluntary. The two main political parties had hitherto announced a roadmap for holding of intraparty elections, starting with local levels around March and ending up with the national convention in June and July for UPND and PF respectively. Since the outbreak of the pandemic both parties went quiet and their own set deadlines for lower level elections have come and gone. Nothing said about the way forward. Why?
Isn’t this a missed opportunity for parties to demonstrate that indeed national elections can be held in the COVID 19 era and send a strong message that come what may the 2021 general elections will be held as scheduled? In essence the COVID 19 situation is a test of character for political parties in innovativeness to adapt to emerging situations, in this instance in use of technology to sustain our electoral democracy. Party elections would also have been a trial run of the country’s COVID 19 preventive measures vis the holding of national elections prior to 2021.
Therefore, in the same way that the President advised businesses that voluntarily suspended operations to resume normal operations, this should be extended to political activities. For instance, a number of churches could be emulated for conducting services virtually and remotely even before the ban was lifted. Examples abound globally of national elections held in the middle of the COVID 19 pandemic. South Korea, for instance, held its 21st legislative elections on 15 April 2020 amidst having the second highest cases of COVID 19 after China at the time (at least 10,560 cumulative cases and 200 deaths). All the 300 constituencies held their elections; they are twice as many as Zambia’s constituencies.
The Cable News Network (CNN) reported that the Korean election attracted the highest voter turnout in 28 years (at 66.2% of the 44 million registered voters). The CNN further reported that “at the door, voters were handed masks and gloves and a polling station officer took their temperature. Anyone with a temperature of more than 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Farenheit) was required to vote in a special booth. Election officials in masks escorted those who failed the temperature check or who were not wearing a mask to separate polling booths, sanitising the facilities after they had voted.” All the polling 14,500+ polling booths were regularly disinfected. A special arrangement was made for the 13,000 people under self-quarantine to cast their ballots immediately after the polls closed.
Lessons can also be learnt about how campaigns were conducted. CNN reported that “While election campaigns in the country are often festive, featuring K-pop style dance troupes, this election season was more sedate. Candidates wore gloves and face masks as they campaigned on the streets of Seoul.” Most of the campaigns were virtual, meaning “using computers or the internet instead of going to a place, meeting people in person, etc”
Similarly, the state of Wisconsin in the United States held its Democratic Party Primary Elections on 7 April, two and half months into the COVID 19 pandemic. At that time the USA had a cumulative total of 398,185 confirmed cases with 12,844 deaths. Back here the people of Nangula Ward voted in a bye-election on 4 April, three weeks after the first two cases were announced on 18 March, However, without a blueprint from ECZ, the parties hardly conducted any campaigns, to the extent that they can’t be taken as a good lesson.
To sum, the COVID 19 pandemic is here to stay. Not a single country on earth knows exactly when the virus will finally ‘disappear’ from its population. The WHO has just announced that the virus may never be completely eradicated. It is indeed a ‘new normal’. If political players are going to wait for the ‘old normal’ in order to resume their electoral democracy, they may find themselves waiting forever. The health guidelines are applicable to any situation. Why not adopt them full-scale across the entire political spectrum? The recently announced 9 June by-elections could be the test case.
As parties ponder whether or when to conduct intraparty elections, they should remember the famous advice from Dr Anthony Fauchi, the face of the COVID-19 fight globally, “You don’t set the timeline, the virus sets the timeline.” (26.03,20).
The author is a media and health communication researcher and scholar with the Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia. He is reachable on pmbozi5ATyahooDOTcom. The facts and figures in this article were sourced from WHO recognized and international media sources.