Wire Service
3 minute read
15 May 2020
1:02 pm

Coronavirus or election? Malawi gambles in push for votes


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. 

Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, left, meets with Malawi's President Peter Mutharika, during the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London on January 20, 2020. Picture: Stefan Rousseau / POOL / AFP

The poor southern African country will hold polls in just under 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 percent of the May 21 vote but the Constitutional 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’

“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.

Coronavirus 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.

A court last month 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 is would defeat the … fight against coronavirus,” he said.

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,”  Banda said.

“Coronavirus will come and go but this election is a game-changer. If we lose this election, then we are doomed,” she said.

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 coronavirus in Malawi? I doubt! If we had coronavirus here, we would be dying in numbers. In Italy, … 800 people were dying a day,” she said.

Namitowa said the official infection figures were 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 Chakwera’s Lazarus 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.

Dire consequences

Malawi University of Science and Technology virologist Gama Bandawe warned that the consequences would be dire.

“It effectively leaves us to face the full unmitigated force of the pandemic,” he told AFP.

He said 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 also follow suit,” said Jana.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged politicians to ensure that social distancing is observed and to issue free face masks to rally goers.

“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,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.

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