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The Covid-19 pandemic is among the most consequential global events since World War II, affecting virtually every country in the world.

By the end of 2020, more than 60 million people had contracted the virus and over one and a half million had died. In response to the pandemic, governments restricted citizens’ movement to varying degrees through lockdown measures, with the objective of slowing the spread of the disease.

The pandemic contributed to severe economic contractions in most countries, increasing unemployment and poverty around the world.

In Zambia, the third-wave Covid-19 pandemic has struck during a general election year, shifting the political narrative and the ruling PF’s re-election prospects. Prior to the first-wave pandemic, the Zambian economy was performing relatively well, and the opposition UPND, while extremely polarizing, has seemingly enjoyed strong support among would-be urban voters. The virus has changed the narrative and shaped the scenario of political campaigns. Clearly though, President Edgar Lungu explained that the restrictions on crowding imposed by a Statutory Instrument signed last year and health guidelines given by officials were not meant to disadvantage anyone during campaigns.

Speaking when he met chiefs in Samfya, President Lungu explained that the health guidelines that officials had set and the Statutory Instrument were meant to stop the further spread of Covid-19 and to protect the citizens whose health was paramount. Adding that the PF was equally affected by the measures but it could not flout regulations by holding public rallies even though they were needed during an election. He further explained that the ruling party valued the lives of Zambians and would do everything possible to protect them.

But in stark contrast to the way its political adversary, the ruling PF, does things – the UPND insisted that it would go ahead with political campaign rallies ahead of the August 12 general election against advice from the relevant authorities not to do so due to the escalated Covid-19 cases in the country. Besides, UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema’s pandemic response, which contrasted with those of many leaders in other political parties, has repeatedly been criticized by epidemiologists and healthcare technocrats.

There is almost unanimous acknowledgement that Zambia is in the third-wave of Covid-19 crisis with the number of infections currently fifth across the continent – obvious enough about a country now seeing a generalized geographical outbreak. It has been a long-time coming yet tensions are mounting in Zambia as the country braces itself for presidential, parliamentary and local government elections scheduled for August this year. Many Zambians fear record spikes in Covid-19 cases due to election-related activities similar to those in India and the United States.

Indeed, some concerned Zambians are anxiously reflecting back to the election campaign scenario of 2016, the year the country held its last multiparty presidential elections. At the time, the UPND held campaign rallies in urban and rural areas including locations traditionally viewed as PF strongholds such as Kasama, the capital of Northern Province. UPND rallies were often lavish jamborees where traditional leaders were given expensive gifts.

There was no doubt then, that Zambia’s main opposition party had significant resources and something to boast about; the economy was relatively growing at unprecedented rates and many international companies were reportedly donating millions to the coffers of the UPND for future favours in case of regime change. In spite of all this, the UPND presidential candidate lost the race for the consecutive fifth time. That begs the question: What is the effect of Covid-19 pandemic on Zambia’s upcoming general elections?

Needless to say, continued disregard of Covid-19 prevention guidelines by some political players during campaigns may lead to postponement of the August 12 general elections, especially that Zambia has confirmed a third-wave of Covid-19. If the trend continues, health authorities may be forced to recommend a complete lockdown in view of escalating Covid-19 cases.

The Zambia National Public Health Institute (ZNPHI) may recommend a lockdown, which could result in deferring elections since people’s movement could be restricted. A study of the evolution of the pandemic has shown that Zambia is experiencing a third-wave and the spike in cases has been attributed to political rallies, among other crowded gatherings.

After listening to the ZNPHI and Electoral Commission of Zambia officials who had warned that their members of staff would ensure strict implementation of Covid-19 prevention guidelines and the electoral code of conduct during campaigns and anyone found in breach would be sanctioned accordingly, common sense suggests that these specific adherences were meant to protect the voting public from life-threatening election-campaign-related abuse and vices by uncouth politicians. All opposition leaders in the country are therefore expected to adhere to the electoral code of conduct and Covid-19 prevention guidelines with dignity. Though, Zambian politics have long given up being sensible and dignified.

It is Catch 22 for the UPND campaign managers due to the immense interest and close scrutiny of their conduct from members of the public: on the one hand they will be showing the protection of rampant defiance and abuses of members of the public – long thought to typify their time as government-in-waiting – should they choose to disregard the Covid-19 prevention guidelines and the electoral code of conduct during campaigns. On the other hand, they could play the good and wise democrats and support the Covid-19 prevention guidelines – knowing full well that the cost of doing so might win them some voting public support and sympathy. 

One thing is for sure – Zambia’s voting patterns are surely going to be reconfigured, and pundits are already wondering what might happen at the next general elections. Observers are asking what Covid-19 pandemic-related jinx which will be disturbing Hichilema’s chances, just when he is seemingly so close to the prize. For the moment, though, Zambians are between a rock and a hard place – between a governing party, seemingly entrenched in adhering to the Covid-19 prevention guidelines and a myriad of opposition parties seemingly entrenched in disregarding them. 

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