Malawi Politicians Ignore COVID-19 Measures for Elections

Health experts in Malawi are concerned the ongoing presidential campaigns could help to spread the coronavirus. Political parties are holding mass rallies where few people are wearing face masks or observing social distancing, and one candidate told his supporters to hug each other when they pass on the street. Health authorities have warned that cases will balloon if the gatherings continue.

Lazarus Chakwera (C on pick-up truck), the president for Malawi’s main opposition Party, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), and his election running mate, Saulos Klaus Chilima (R on pick-up truck), Malawi’s incumbent Vice President and president for the United Transformation Movement (UTM), leave the Mount Soche Hotel while surrounded by a crowd of supporters in Blantyre on May 6, 2020, soon after presenting their nomination papers to the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) for the country’s new presidential elections to be held later this year. – Malawi’s two main opposition figures on May 6, 2020, presented nomination papers for a July re-run of presidential polls that saw the re-election of President Peter Mutharika last May. (Photo by AMOS GUMULIRA / AFP)

Malawi’s political parties hit the campaign trail this month ahead of the July 2 presidential election.

Supporters have been attending rallies in large numbers, most without face masks, ignoring measures recommended by the government to prevent spreading the coronavirus.

A United Transformation Movement supporter wears a unique mask as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 at Mount Soche hotel in Blantyre, May 6, 2020, Malawi.
The southern African country has recorded 71 cases of coronavirus so far, and only three deaths. But health rights activists are concerned about the situation.

George Jobe is executive director for Malawi Health Equity Network.

He told VOA via Whatsapp he is worried that should this trend continue, Malawi will not win its battle against COVID-19.

“For that to be achieved, we must be able to observe social distance, using face masks. Where social distancing can be compromised, to ensure we are safe, using hand sanitizers, washing of hands, and avoiding handshakes and all those pieces of advices that we have been receiving, we must continue to observe them,” said Jobe.

But one prominent political leader has remained adamant.

In an open defiance of preventive measures, the country’s vice president Saulos Chilima told a political rally in the capital Lilongwe this week that people should continue to converge in large numbers.

Chilima, leader of the opposition United Transformation Movement (UTM) party, is part of an electoral alliance that includes the Malawi Congress Party and the People’s Party.

Chilima said, “when we are walking, if you meet someone putting on MCP clothes, hug them. And if you meet someone in PP clothes hug them, they are your relations.” He said you cannot contract diseases hugging one another.

Malawi is due to hold fresh presidential elections in July 2 after the country’s Constitutional Court nullified last year’s election, during which President Peter Mutharika won a second term.

Sherrif Kaisi, a political science lecturer at Blantyre International University, said although the threat of coronavirus is plain to see, politicians care only about winning the presidential race.

“So, they will not take any advice. What I will say is that they should put the nation first. And when we talk of the nation, we are talking of the health of people,” said kaisi.

Health rights activist Jobe says political leaders could do better.

“The political parties must ensure they make face masks, then every time they have rallies there should be people distributing. Everyone at the rally must be given a face mask,” he said.

In the meantime, members of Malawi’s Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 say they will hold a meeting with political leaders this week to discuss how they can stage rallies without exposing their supporters to the coronavirus.