A ticking time bomb

A ticking time bomb

Fears rallies could be Covid super-spreaders

MASERU – THE National Covid-19 Secretariat (Nacosec) has expressed concerns that uncontrolled large crowds at political rallies could soon turn into virus super-spreaders.
Nacosec Chief of Staff, Thabo Ntoi, told reporters on Monday that the organ has begun engaging political party leaders to rope them in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

This follows a series of large gatherings held by the All Basotho Convention (ABC) in Ha-Abia two weeks ago, the Basotho Action Parties (BAP)’s three big rallies in successive weeks and the Basotho National Party (BNP)’s leadership election race meetings.
Also last week the Movement for Economic Change (MEC) held a rally attended by thousands of supporters.

According to Covid-19 regulations, organisers of outdoor public meetings should limit crowds to 500 people, and should not last more than three hours.
The Covid-19 regulations also bar alcohol use at public meetings.
Ntoi said the organ held a meeting with political party leaders to map the way forward after realising that Covid-19 protocols were being flouted at political rallies.

“We realised that there was no compliance at rallies and it puts all of us at risk as a country if we don’t address it,” Ntoi said.
“We wondered where the problem was and what to do to avoid being in trouble with high infections that could lead to death and affect our already weak economy,” Ntoi said.

This is happening as the neighbouring South African province of Free State is facing the risk of a devastating Covid-19 third wave.
Hundreds of Basotho cross to and from the Free State daily for various reasons.
The Nacosec CEO, Dr ’Malitaba Litaba, said political leaders play a vital role in policy and governance structures on the readiness of the county to address Covid-19. She encouraged them to show leadership in addressing Covid-19.

“Rallies expose Basotho to infections if followers continue attending without adherence to Covid-19 protocols. This will put us in danger if we don’t prevent it,” Dr Litaba said.
“We don’t have much experience as a country hence we can’t afford people getting sick. This will lead to failure as most of them could die,” she said.
She said political gatherings can still be held but safety should come first.

Dr Litaba said community transmission is still a challenge, although the positivity rate is less than five percent.
“However, we don’t have to relax as we don’t want history to repeat itself. January was awful hence the need to comply.”
Nacosec Head of Stakeholder Management, ’Mating Mahooana, said political gatherings are allowed, but with restrictions.

“Two hundred people are expected to be in a closed space, 500 in an open space and be together for only three hours,” she said.
She said that it was mandatory for organisers of meetings to ensure followers don’t get intoxicated.
“It is their responsibility to ensure that followers don’t get drunk as it is illegal. We can fight and win the battle if we adhere to all protocols,” Mahooana said.

The Legal Manager for Nacosec, Advocate Tlotliso Polaki, said the law gives law enforcement agencies and officers powers to stop gatherings when people don’t abide by regulations.
“If found guilty, the Public Health Covid-19 Regulations show that the penalty can either be payment of M5 000, be jailed or both,” Polaki said.

Polaki called on leaders to collaborate with the organ and law enforcement agents, saying it is not easy for the police to arrest leaders and followers at big rallies.
“It’s unrealistic and almost impossible,” she said.
“Leaders’ cooperation can help and failure to do so can cause Nacosec as the regulator to see what it can do, which can even lead to a rallies prohibition,” she said.

Tebello Tšephe, Assistant Commissioner of Police assigned to Nacosec, said arresting people is the last resort as the first priority was crime prevention.
“Looking at our police stations, in which cells would we keep all people who attend rallies if we were to arrest them?” Assistant Commissioner Tšephe said.
“If we don’t work together, Covid-19 will kill us. We will keep on educating them because behavioural change is a process,” he said.
In response, some political party leaders suggested postponing elections, arguing that polls were a big motivating factor for parties to hold rallies.

By-elections in five constituencies are expected to be held before December, while a parliamentary general election could happen in September next year.
“Focus should be on this crisis first and the parliament can decide on it, otherwise we will destroy this country,” said Malefetsane Liau, leader of Lesotho la Mekhoa le Meetlo (LMM).
Leader of the African Ark, Thabo Thelingoane, shared similar sentiments, and accused Nacosec of lethargy.
“Failure to rebuke people in high positions of power when they did things the wrong way and misinterpreting the law led to a crisis,” Thelingoane said.

“We are prepared to fight the pandemic but the ruling elites are involved. Our major problem is making the law work against certain people,” he said.
Both LLM and the African Ark are not represented in parliament.
Deputy leader of the Alliance of Democrats (AD), Professor Ntoi Rapapa, said life has to go on “in this new normal”.

“Gatherings have to continue but in a safe manner. We should be assisted with control and we shouldn’t proceed if there is no such control. We have to find ways of operating safely,” Professor Rapapa said, whose party is the main opposition in parliament.

Leader of little-known Mpulule Political Summit, Pastor Remaketse Sehlabaka, supported the continuation of rallies, but under strict compliance with regulations.
“The problem is there is no guarantee that by 2023, Covid-19 would have vanished as it comes in waves. Elections are equally important,” Sehlabaka said.

Tšepang Tšita-Mosena, the MEC deputy leader decried alleged selective application of the law, warning that Covid-19 could be used as a weapon against the democratic rights of the people.
“Restrictions should be practical and balanced,” Tšita-Mosena said.
The Parliamentary Social Cluster Chairperson, who is also the MP for BAP, Fako Moshoeshoe, said the matter of elections should be decided by the people and not by politicians.

“The public should be asked whether they want elections next year or not. We have to focus on that,” Moshoeshoe said.
Senator Lebohang Hlaele, secretary general of the ABC, said the Nacosec has to take all recommendations forwarded to it and advise the government on how to handle this issue as political leaders held different views.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dr Moeketsi Majoro said political leaders shouldn’t allow themselves to think that they can win against Covid-19.
“I am still scared following the massive rallies held last week,” said Dr Majoro, who is also the ABC deputy leader.
He said it wasn’t easy to control people at political gatherings, suggesting they should be suspended.

“There is no way Basotho will be controlled to wear masks throughout the rally because they simply refuse,” he said.
He said at one of the rallies he attended last weekend “at first followers wore masks but later on removed them”.

“A political rally is not controllable and it will be difficult to arrest leaders. That could lead to dissatisfaction of the followers and cause riots,” he said.
He said political leaders should meet more often to find ways of dealing with the issue.
“If we don’t control rallies ourselves, then we are only talking and it will not help us. Maybe we should meet once every two weeks and agree on ways of controlling ourselves as politicians as this will make Nacosec’s job easier,” he said, warning that danger remains until everyone is vaccinated.

’Mapule Motsopa

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