By Duncan Mlanjira
Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) is set to hold seven by-elections in seven constituencies and two wards that fell vacant with an emphasis to strictly enforce and observe strict COVID-19 preventive measures to protect the electorate and poll workers from contracting or spreading the virus.
The by-elections have to be held in line with the law and while sis of the vacancies were through the deaths — of four Members of Parliament (Ntchisi North, Lilongwe Nsinja South, Karonga North West and Zomba Changalume) and two ward councillors from Rivirivi in Balaka and Chitakale in Mulanje districts — MEC was mandated by the High Court to hold the fresh elections in the three constituencies that were nullified.
The vacancies are in Nsanje Central; Nsanje North and Chikwawa East and the High Court ruled that their by-elections should be held within 60 days from the date of the judgment — February 4.
In launching the by-elections on February 18, MEC chairperson Justice DR. Chifundo Kachale, SC assured the public that messages on COVID-19 will be a cross-cutting theme in all electoral messages that we will be disseminating through loudhailers, radio, television, fliers, and posters among others.
He said they were holding the by-elections in cognizance that this was being done in the context of COVID-19 and MEC expects various players to ensure that they play their rightful roles in making sure that both the electorate and candidates adhere to the measures.
As of Wednesday, Kachale informed the public that the COVID-19 positivity rate was dropping drastically as at the height of the second wave of the pandemic in mid-January, positivity rate was at over 30.4% but now was at 16.2% a day before the national launch.
He said the COVID-19 presidential taskforce projects that in the next two weeks it will be at 15.4% and in the next 4 weeks it will be below 10%.
“With the expectation that if that projection is maintained, it will be reasonably safe to undertake the by-elections since when we were conducting by-elections in November last year, it was at hovering around 15%.”
As of Sunday evening, the positive cases out of the total translated to a positivity rate of 16.5% — as from the COVID-19 presidential taskforce situation report.
Saturday’s positivity rate was at 11.7%; Friday at 15.8%; Thursday at 14.9%; Wednesday at 16.2%; Tuesday was 17.7% and Monday at 15.7%.
After the national launch, MEC went ahead and launched the by-elections in the seven constituencies and finished with the two wards in Rivilivi in Balaka West and Chitakale in Mulanje South constituencies.
MEC commissioner Major Steve Duwa Phiri, retired was at Kankao teacher development centre (TDC) which is one of the polling centres for Rivilivi ward and he encouraged the gathering to spread the strict adherence to the COVID-19 preventive measures ahead and during the polls and thereafter.
He informed the voters that:
• Each centre will have a pail of water for people to wash hands before proceeding to their respective business at a centre
• The electorate is encouraged to bring their own personal protective equipment (PPEs) like masks, face shields, and hand sanitisers
• Registrants and voters should queue two arms apart. Ushers will be trained to control the queues and ensure that people follow the directions they are given
• Polling staff will be given hand sanitisers, face shields, and masks among other PPEs
• Polling staff are not allowed to touch the voter certificate. Instead, the voter should just hold it out close to the identification clerk to read and verify the details on the certificate
• Where possible, voters are encouraged to bring their own ball point pens for marking on the ballot paper. The Commission will still make available the ball point pens in all ballot booths.
“It is our anticipation that the Commission will enjoy positive support from all parties and stakeholders in observing the preventive protocols that are in force as according to the law,” Commissioner Duwa Phiri said.
Meanwhile, in the past 24 hours of Sunday, Malawi registered 214 new COVID-19 cases, 220 new recoveries and nine new deaths — three from Lilongwe and one each from Blantyre, Chitipa, Mzimba North, Thyolo, Ntcheu, and Zomba Districts.
All new cases are locally transmitted with Lilongwe as the highest at 85 followed by 67 from Salima and 23 from Blantyre.
There were 14 cases that were hospitalised with nine being discharged while a total of 115 active cases were hospitalised with Lilongwe having the highest at 29 followed by 25 in Blantyre and 17 in Mzimba North.
Malawi has of Sunday recorded 30,742 cases since April last year that includes 1,013 deaths (case fatality rate at 3.3%) and of these cases, 2,027 are imported infections and 28,715 are locally transmitted.
Cumulatively, 16,840 cases have now recovered, 134 were lost to follow-up, and 76 are still being investigated to ascertain their outcome. — bringing the total number of active cases to 12,679.