Defying social distance, politics in the Covid-19 era

By Roy Nkosi – Mana.

Life is no longer the same, the much touch year, 2020 and sprung an outbreak that the world did not anticipate both in terms of its magnitude and the impact it will have on what is generally accepted as normal lifestyle. 

For instance, a handshake greeting is the order of the day in almost all cultures worldwide, but that is gone.

Coronavirus known as Covid-19 has brought in an element probably never heard of before, social distance in which individuals are supposed to be at least a metre apart. 

In Malawi, the disease outbreak has come at a crucial time in the country’s history as preparations for a fresh Presidential election are at a crucial point.

As a matter of keeping up with preventative regulations from the World Health Organisation (WHO), government issued its own guidelines to control the spread of the virus.

Through a Special Cabinet Committee now known as a Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19, government ordered non-essential staff to work from home, closed down Churches, banned gatherings of more than 100 people, reduced capacity of public transport and stressed the importance to observe social distancing. 

To a certain extent, the measures have been followed with for example, Churches migrating to digital platforms to reach out to the congregation and government employees working in shifts to reduce crowding in workplaces.

But now that the campaign season is in full swing, what happens to the measures government imposed to combat Covid-19? 

When people flooded the streets of Blantyre on May 6,2020 as Dr. Lazarus Chakwera and his running mate Dr. Saulos Chilima of the Tonse Alliance presented their nomination papers to the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), Minister of Health Jappie Mhango who was at the time giving his daily updates on the pandemic described what happened as childish.

A day later, it was the turn of the ruling party and it was a similar story, government had defied its own measures, no social distancing and crowds flooding the city of Blantyre. 

A head of the Tonse Alliance first campaign rally in Mzuzu on May 10, 2020 Malawi Congress Party Strategist, Dr Ken Zikhale Ng’oma told Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) that ‘electing a President was a priority and Covid-19 would be dealt with accordingly after the elections.

A few weeks later, Dr. Chilima told masses at a rally in Lilongwe that they should not be afraid to hug anyone wearing any of the party colours in the alliance. 

He criticised government’s handling the pandemic such as repatriation of Malawians from South African who have contributed to the majority of the cases.

One contentious aspect as argued by Chilima and others that there was low death rate from the pandemic.

To date, 455 people have been found positive and with four confirmed deaths with underlined conditions.

Speaking at a rally in Zomba, the Vice President suggested that it was possible that God had spared the country from the pandemic questioning why only four people had died since the first case was confirmed in April, 2020 when the death rate was so high in other countries exceeding 400,000 according to the WHO.

A few days later, Former President Dr. Joyce Banda addressing a Tonse Alliance rally in Nkhata-Bay said Malawi has no Covid-19.

“So far Malawi has been spared from Covid-19, I urge government to use the funds it got from international financial institutions to expedite development projects in the country,” she suggested.

Making his State of the Nation Address to parliament via video link, as a preventive measure against the pandemic, President Prof. Peter Mutharika warned that ‘we must be ready for the worst.’

“It is a very serious problem. If we are not careful, we will suffer far worse and long-term consequences than we have already suffered and no one will be spared,” he said. 

But his words and actions do not speak to each other. The President recently went on a campaign trail in his home district of Thyolo, defying the precautionary measures imposed by his own government. 

Speaking to masses at Bvumbwe Trading Centre, Mutharika warned the public that Coronavirus was real and advised them to follow the necessary precautions. 

On that campaign tour, the President and the First Lady did not wear face masks but the microphone he used was constantly sanitized.

In contrast, Co-Chair of Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19, Dr. John Phuka has continuously stressed the need to engage political leaders on balancing between two important aspects of Presidential election campaign and the pandemic. 

“The Taskforce continues to condemn political rallies, continues to promote social and physical distancing. We are encouraging the nation to go towards procedures that support social and physical distancing. 

“We are constantly engaging with the politicians, we know that politics is important especially with the elections ahead, but we need to come up with innovations of communicating in a different way that does not put the society at risk,” Phuka told Malawi News Agency (Mana). 

But the engagement as suggested by Phuka does not seem to be achieving anything at all, in as far political rallies are concerned, it remains business as usual.

Apart from the party affiliates gathering for such rallies, there are some who have no choice but avail themselves to work in such an environment. 

Take Mana Photojournalist, Govati Nyirenda as an example, he has covered a number of rallies during this Covid-19 pandemic despite the risk that comes with it.

Nyirenda said it was impossible to completely follow all the precautionary measures in such an environment. 

“As much as I tried to be cautious but sometimes I was carried away with events. Of course, I was wearing a mask throughout but social distance could not observe completely,” he admitted. 

With the polling day drawing closer, the number of Covid-19 cases continue to rise rapidly with most of them being imported cases.

With doubts deeply instilled in the public about the authenticity of Covid-19 cases, life will remain as normal, and it’s up to an individual’s own discretion to follow the necessary preventative measures.


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