Malawi will have its election, come hell or Covid-19
Some members of the opposition don’t believe the coronavirus is even in the country, with infection figures just a political ploy
Blantyre — Officials and experts are sounding the alarm as Malawi shifts to top campaign gear with giant rallies for an unprecedented presidential re-run despite the coronavirus pandemic.
The poor Southern African country will hold polls in just less than two months after the constitutional court overturned the results of last year’s controversial election, which handed President Peter Mutharika a second term.
Mutharika garnered just 38.5% of the May 21 vote but the court annulled the result, citing “grave” and “widespread” irregularities, including the use of correction fluid on ballot papers
Polling is due on July 2, but could be brought forward to June 23, the electoral commission said this week.
In a blatant defiance of a ban on large gatherings, thousands of elated supporters jostled and shoved, shoulder to shoulder, cheering on their candidates as they handed in their nomination papers last week. Immediately after that, parties hit the road, attracting huge crowds.
Health minister Jappie Mhango chided his colleagues on the campaign trail. “Elections or not, we need people and we cannot be sending them to the grave because we want to win an election.”
“We’re being careless. If the leaders themselves cannot even observe social distancing, who will be telling people ... about the seriousness of the pandemic?” he said.
Covid-19 infections have been slowly creeping in Malawi and now stand at 63, including three deaths, since the first case emerged on April 2. There is no lockdown but the government has ordered public gatherings to be capped at 100 people.
Last month, a court blocked the government from imposing a full lockdown because it had failed to announce any measures to cushion the vulnerable.
“We are really concerned with the gathering of people for political rallies,” said health ministry principal secretary Dan Namarika. “We have seen huge gatherings, this would defeat the ... fight against the coronavirus.”
But for staunch Mutharika supporter Jacqueline Banda, this election is a do-or-die affair.
“Of course, it is important to protect ourselves against Covid-19, [but] I feel that the country is in crisis and we need to win this election,” she said. “The coronavirus will come and go but this election is a game-changer. If we lose this election, then we are doomed.”
Opposition supporter Thoko Namitowa cast doubt on whether the virus had reached Malawi and said she would not be dissuaded from attending rallies. “Do we really have the coronavirus in Malawi? I doubt! If we had the coronavirus here, we would be dying in numbers. In Italy ... 800 people were dying a day.”
She said the official infection figures are a ploy by the government “to stop the election from happening”.
Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) secretary-general Griezelder Jeffrey declined to react but main opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party accused the DPP of flouting the virus guidelines first and setting a precedent.
“The government put in place regulations regarding Covid-19 but they are the first ones who broke those same rules. So, how do they expect the rest of us to adhere to these rules?” party general secretary Eisenhower Mkaka said.
Malawi University of Science and Technology virologist Gama Bandawe warned that the consequences will be dire.
“It effectively leaves us to face the full unmitigated force of the pandemic,” he said, adding that Malawians “will only fully understand the impact once we start to see burial teams and mass graves” because the disease is “deceptively undramatic until it is too late”.
Political scientist Michael Jana said the bitter power struggle has seen the country throw caution to the wind. “If politicians can break these rules willy-nilly, people will follow suit.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged politicians to ensure that social-distancing is observed and to issue free masks to rally goers.
Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said, “It is very important to keep that physical distance and assuring these events do not become an occasion for the virus to spread further into the population.”