The Electoral Commission (IEC) has struggled to explain why it spent R7.2-million on disinfectant fogger sprays for the 18-19 September voter registration weekend despite long-standing recommendations against using foggers to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Since Daily Maverick first reported on the IEC’s use of foggers, it has abandoned plans to purchase a further 126,280 400ml canisters of disinfectant foggers to distribute to voting stations for the 1 November local government elections after a meeting with the Department of Health.
“We are not providing foggers for the election day,” Deputy Chief Electoral Officer Mawethu Mosery told Daily Maverick.
“It was our plan, but has now been jettisoned as per [an] advisory meeting with the Department of Health in September 2021.”
The IEC distributed foggers to each of the 23,151 voting stations that opened over the special registration weekend. They were used before the opening and after the closing of voting stations on each of the two days of voter registration.
Medical experts have warned that foggers play no role in preventing the spread of Covid-19. Following the IEC’s announcement in September, the Risk Communications and Community Engagement Working Group from the Department of Health expressed concern over the IEC’s purchase of foggers.
“These are unnecessary, wastefully expensive and create confusion around non-pharmaceutical interventions. Ventilation is critical but fogging is not effective,” it said.
Mosery said the IEC’s voting protocol during the coronavirus pandemic was developed in June 2020, in preparation for the by-elections. The by-elections, held in November and December 2020, as well as in April and May 2021, were based on this protocol, which included pre-voting venue fogging and post-voting venue fogging.
“Procurement for by-elections was in September 2020,” he said.
Charitoo Enterprise was the supplier of disinfectant foggers at voting stations during the by-elections. Difaka supplied foggers during the voter registration weekend at a cost of R7,208,947.90.
Neither company appears to be a member of industry associations, the National Contract Cleaners Association and Beeca Cleaning Association. An internet search provides no evidence that these two companies have expertise in the commercial cleaning industry.
Mosery said the IEC bought the foggers based on the “Department of Labour advisory note of 2020, as well as the directive note of June 2021”.
The Department of Labour regulations require workplaces to disinfect surfaces and take other appropriate measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but they do not mention the use of foggers. Asked for the specific clauses the IEC relied on, Mosery did not respond.
A Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) circular, dated 16 March 2020, unequivocally placed the responsibility on “all heads of departments and provincial administrations in the public service” to remain up to date because “knowledge about the virus is continuing to unfold”.
The advisory went further. It listed the resources that were to be relied on “for updates and the latest information”. Appearing at the top of the list is the National Department of Health, followed by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. The Department of Labour is not on the list.
Another DPSA circular, dated 1 May 2020, as well as a National Department of Health advisory, dated 10 June 2020, explicitly state that the use of foggers as Covid-19 disinfectant is not recommended.
“The Department of Health does not endorse or require ‘deep cleaning’ that involves fumigation, demisting or fogging,” the June 2020 statement read.
The IEC appears to have ignored this and other advice while developing its voting protocol in June 2020.
Electoral Commission Vice-Chairperson Janet Love previously told Daily Maverick that the health advice on fogging was unclear when the IEC signed contracts with its more than 20,000 voting sites and many venues requested the use of foggers before signing their contracts.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also recommended against using foggers. Mosery said the “WHO’s advisory was issued in May 2021; our acquisition was concluded before this date… at the time of procurement conclusion was for purposes of the registration weekend initially scheduled for 17 and 18 July 2021.”
But the WHO’s advisory was issued in May 2020, before the IEC’s protocol was finalised. The WHO advisory stated, “In indoor spaces, routine application of disinfectants to environmental surfaces via spraying or fogging (also known as fumigation or misting) is not recommended.”
“We did not ignore the advice,” said Mosery.
“We took advice when we became aware of the advisory.” DM