Denial, opportunism and fakery muddy the waters in African campaign against Coronavirus

Denial, opportunism and fakery muddy the waters in African campaign against Coronavirus
The late President of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza raising his fist as he delivers a speech at a campaign for the upcoming Presidential elections in Bujumbura, Burundi, 24 June 2010. (EPA/Yannick Tylle)

Politics is undermining the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in some African countries – especially those that are due to hold elections later this year.

Regional health bodies such as the African Union’s Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), among others, have made efforts to strengthen the capacity of member states to respond to the threat of Covid-19.

But politicians in some African countries are placing party interests and personal political ambition above considerations of public health.

In 2020, Malawi is slated to hold presidential elections on 2 July, Tanzania is due to hold a general election on 4 October, Guinea has a presidential election slated for October, Burundi held presidential and legislative elections on 20 May while Burkina Faso is to stage both presidential and National Assembly elections in November. Cote d’Ivoire is to hold presidential elections on 31 October.

In December, Ghana is set to have presidential and national assembly elections on the 7th; Central African Republic is scheduled to hold presidential elections on the 27th; and Niger is slated to have both presidential and national assembly elections the same day. Seychelles must hold presidential elections between September and November.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sudan postponed its presidential, legislative, state and local elections which were slated for February and moved them to 2022 and Ethiopia indefinitely postponed its legislative elections, which had been due in August. Togo held presidential elections in February 2020.

Tanzania has been one of the most controversial countries in its response to the coronavirus. AFP News recently reported that its already controversial President John Magufuli had questioned his country’s coronavirus numbers, and called on the authorities to investigate “sabotage” in testing for Covid-19 at the national laboratory.

The government has come under fire from the opposition and from the Africa CDC for halting the publication of case numbers, for violating the continental joint anti-Covid-19 strategy and for failing to take the disease seriously.

Magufuli said that people who tested positive for the virus may not be sick, and cast doubt on the credibility of laboratory equipment and technicians.

He is also reported to have secretly sent off fruit, animal samples and vehicle oil for testing, to demonstrate that the national laboratory records false positives.

The East African country had at the time recorded 480 cases of Covid-19 and 16 deaths.

The AFP also reported that Tanzania’s main opposition party, Chadema, has called for a 21-day suspension of Parliament after three legislators died from unknown causes.

Chadema chairperson Freeman Mbowe has repeatedly accused the government of covering up the true extent of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Zambia, which has reported 920 cases of Covid-19, and seven deaths, doubts have also been cast on the accuracy of the official figures.

On 9 May, the country recorded 85 cases from Nakonde on the border between Zambia and Tanzania, the highest daily tally recorded at the time.

Yet on 10 May, the country reported that it had recorded 15 new cases, and the day after that none at all.

Former Health Professions Council of Zambia chief executive Aaron Mujajati said the government was not being truthful.

“From 85, to 15, to zero cases… I am confused,” read a Facebook post by Mujajati

The country is scheduled to hold general elections in August 2021.

In Malawi, the opposition has accused the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of using virus-related materials, paid for by the state, as campaign tools.

The Zambian opposition has taken a different and equally problematic tack on the government figures, suggesting that there is no Covid-19 in Zambia and that the statistics are “maliciously targeted at deferring the 2021 poll”.

Progressive Party leader James Lukuku said the official figures were fake.

“I doubt if there is coronavirus in Zambia. Open up the economy, open restaurants, bars and all closed businesses. The absence of transparency is underhandedness and corruption,” Lukuku said.

The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) recently issued a statement saying that the electoral calendar might be affected by Covid-19.

“Following the coronavirus outbreak …the commission …is reviewing the roadmap for elections,” said ECZ spokesperson Margaret Chimanse.

Mutale Nalumango, chairperson for another opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND) has condemned the politicisation of the fight against Covid-19.

“Is it worthy to politicise a pandemic? Do you think you should use it as a campaign tool?” Nalumango asked, referring to the governing party using coronavirus protective gear to advertise itself.

“We have issued a statement to our members that no one should politicise this fight. We have told them that ‘you can make a mask but you don’t have to brand it UPND or start using our party regalia.’ ”

She took aim at the ruling Patriotic Front, saying that it was distributing anti-virus materials from a variety of sources in such a way that “it appears that everything is from the PF”.

Earlier, the national co-ordinator of the PF’s Presidential Empowerment Fund, Clement Tembo, was reported to be distributing material in PF colours in Lusaka’s markets for the making of face masks.

In Malawi, the opposition has accused the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of using virus-related materials, paid for by the state, as campaign tools.

One example it cited was the distribution of bottles of sanitisers carrying the portrait of DPP leader and current national president Peter Mutharika and reading:

“Vote Peter 2020 Boma. 99.9% hand sanitizer. Kills all germs/virus.”

It is true that political parties and other organisations right across the continent have seized the opportunity to put their logos and party colours on masks and other anti-coronavirus equipment. The problem arises when a ruling party puts its brand on material which is funded by the state — which is the suspicion in Malawi as well as in other countries, such as Zimbabwe.

There are also claims that the Malawi government has inflated the number of cases of Covid-19 in an effort to attract more donor funding. This despite the fact that there have only been 101 cases recorded to date with four deaths.

Civil society recently won a court order blocking the imposition of a lockdown on grounds that the government has failed to consult the country on its merits.

There have also been countrywide demonstrations protesting against the idea of a complete lockdown, which has not yet been imposed. Though the government has tried to introduce some measures such as the closing of bars and taverns, schools and churches and also limiting gatherings to no more than 100 people, Malawians say these are largely not being enforced and so are being ignored.

Malawi is to hold fresh presidential elections on 23 June after a Constitutional Court ruling that the elections of May 2019 were flawed.

Such are the levels of public suspicion that civil society organisations and opposition politicians allege that donor funding amounting to more than one billion kwacha (about R980-million), intended to mitigate Covid-19, has been diverted to serve political interests.

One opposition politician, who asked not to be identified, claimed that 70% of the confirmed coronavirus cases were fake and that certain individuals had confessed to the media that they were paid to say that they had tested positive.

In Lesotho, the protracted political battle over the past few months to oust Prime Minister Tom Thabane – which ended only on 19 May – has distracted the government from properly tackling the pandemic, observers say.

A few weeks ago, video footage was circulated on social media of prison staff fighting running battles with the police over the distribution of the Covid-19 funds. Nurses have also gone on strike over the issue.

In an interview, Human Rights Defenders Coalition chairperson Gift Trapence said that because the fight against the pandemic had been politicised, it was difficult for Malawians to trust the statistics.

“Just a week ago the government realised that they are supposed to set up a national task force that will include the opposition, civil society, faith-based institutions, medical professionals and business entities to be part of the response,” Trapence said.

“It is only through such a national task force that you can create trust among the people in the Covid-19 data,” he said

“That is why it was difficult to implement the lockdown. Government did not consult key stakeholders, so people suspected that it was running away from the court decision to hold fresh elections.”

Neither Malawi Health Minister Jappie Mhango nor government spokesperson Mark Bottoman could be reached for comment.

In Lesotho, the protracted political battle over the past few months to oust Prime Minister Tom Thabane – which ended only on 19 May – has distracted the government from properly tackling the pandemic, observers say.

They cite two examples: Thabane’s health minister promised to create a local capacity to conduct coronavirus tests but never managed to do so. At present all samples are sent to neighbouring South Africa for testing. Some believe this is why the country has recorded only one case so far, in the second week of May, and no deaths — out of a total 274 samples tested.

The other response which the political infighting has delayed is a promised government compensation payment to workers who have been unable to work because of the lockdown.

New Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro, elected on 20 May to replace Thabane, has vowed to make the fight against the pandemic his first priority.

In Burundi, the fight against the coronavirus has also become deeply embroiled in politics. The government recently expelled the head of the local World Health Organisation office and other officials – apparently because the WHO expressed concerns that election campaigning could spread the coronavirus.

The country went to the polls on 20 May to elect a new president and Parliament. This week the governing party’s candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye was officially declared the winner, though the opposition cried foul.

President Pierre Nkurunziza has reportedly claimed that God will protect Burundi from Covid-19. There are currently reported to be 42 cases of the disease in the country and a single death.

According to Associated Press, the Burundi government has offered no explanation for the ousting of the WHO’s top country official, its country coronavirus co-ordinator, its head of communicable diseases for the country and a lab expert focusing on testing for Covid-19.

However, the health ministry has reportedly accused the UN agency of “unacceptable interference in the [the country’s] management of the coronavirus”.

The Africa CDC described the move as “unfortunate”.

“We are in dire need of technical expertise as a continent, which has a very weak health system and fragile infrastructure, where we don’t have the luxury of kicking out (the) WHO,” Africa CDC director John Nkengasong told reporters.

President Pierre Nkurunziza has reportedly claimed that God will protect Burundi from Covid-19. There are currently reported to be 42 cases of the disease in the country and a single death.

Madagascar’s coronavirus response has also become embroiled in controversy, mainly because President Andry Rajoelina has aggressively touted what he claims is a herbal remedy for Covid-19, a tonic named Covid-Organics made from a local plant, artemisia annua.

Several other African leaders, including Tanzania’s Magufuli, are reported to have ordered supplies of the alleged remedy.

The WHO and the Africa CDC, though, have cautioned that Covid-Organics should only be taken after it has been scientifically tested for safety and efficacy.

Africa CDC director John Nkengasong said his organisation is working with Madagascar to test the substance.

Rajoelina has also been accused of clamping down on local politicians who have criticised his use of the pandemic to advance his own political interests.

In April, former Malagasy president Marc Ravalomanana sent an open letter to Rajoelina demanding greater transparency, accountability, impartiality and neutrality by the government.

“We are very concerned about management of the emergency measures and their sanitary, financial, social, and economic impacts,” Ravalomanana wrote. “The Malagasy people have the right (of) access to information regarding the coronavirus, the government strategy and its action plan.

“We also request full transparency regarding the government procurement during the state of sanitary emergency.”

Ravalomanana said citizens and donors should hold the government accountable for the measures implemented and their consequences.

All measures should be implemented equally, without regard for political affiliation or economic interests.

“We denounce the use of the social aid to the Malagasy people as political propaganda tools for the political party in… power,” he said.

“Freedom of speech and freedom of the press must be preserved. We condemn the imprisonment of journalists and politicians from the opposition party. The government should not use the state of sanitary emergency to justify abuse of power.”

He also called on the international community to uphold good governance and democratic principles in Madagascar, and to promote inclusive dialogue.

Rajoelina has been accused of sabotaging an opposition TV station, Real TV, just before it was about to rebroadcast an interview with Ravalomanana on his criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

“Just as the TV channel was about to retransmit the interview, unidentified persons damaged its transmitter and antenna on the night of 6 April despite the presence of soldiers [guarding them],” Real TV’s director said in a statement.

Early in the pandemic, Ethiopia’s National Electoral Board indefinitely postponed its eagerly-awaited national elections, due in August, citing the Covid-19 outbreak. The country recorded its 655th case and fifth death on Monday 25 May.

In Nigeria, which this week reported an accumulated total of 8,068 cases and 233 deaths, the outbreak of Covid-19 has prompted an attack by Health Minister Osagie Ehanire against moonlighting government health workers.

After the death of a worker from the disease, Ehanire said government employees must stop giving private treatment to Covid-19 patients.

The death, he said, highlighted the risk of moonlighting.

“Health workers are strongly advised against treatment of people who have Covid-19 outside the accredited health facilities. Private facilities must obtain accreditation to treat Covid-19,” he tweeted.

He also condemned the stigmatisation of those that had tested positive, saying:

“Covid-19 has stoked stigma against those who have been in contact with it. They are treated poorly. Stigma drives them to hide illness and not seek care… Please do not stigmatise persons who have recovered from Covid-19.”

Early in the pandemic, Ethiopia’s National Electoral Board indefinitely postponed its eagerly-awaited national elections, due in August, citing the Covid-19 outbreak. The country recorded its 655th case and fifth death on Monday 25 May.

Barbara Lopi, senior communications officer of the 15-government regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) told Daily Maverick that SADC was assessing how the Covid-19 pandemic was developing and finding ways of how best to observe elections while taking into account the need to contain the spread of the disease.

“SADC has adopted regional guidelines aimed at facilitating and easing the process of transporting essential goods and services, Lopi said.

She said the regional body “is engaging with the African Development Bank and the German government… to support SADC member states with… essential medicines, medical supplies and medical equipment, especially testing kits, personal protective equipment and ventilators”.

This work would supplement that of Nkengasong’s Africa CDC which has taken the continental lead in co-ordinating the response to the pandemic and, for instance, buying and/or distributing essential equipment such as test kits and ventilators, some donated by the Chinese philanthropist Jack Ma. DM

Sipilisiwe Ncube works for News Diggers in Zambia. She produced this story while doing an internship with Daily Maverick, sponsored by IJ Hub.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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