I love history. Digging into the past to shed light on a current place or a time. Yet, one thing to read about history, and another to live it. Of course, there are those incidents that we remember where we were such as the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion (middle school art class) or 9/11 (asleep in bed in my basement apartment in Monterey, California) but these are generally not moments we personally experienced, not like now. Now, we are all living through history. We are in it.
I wrote earlier about the convergence of the coronavirus pandemic and the historic Malawian presidential election re-run as a result of a landmark Constitutional and Supreme Court decisions — only the second time a court had overturned an election on the African continent. Also, I noted just as COVID-19 made its late arrival in Malawi, one of the last countries in the world to confirm a case, the massive campaign rallies began, often sans precautionary measures. Faced with a new election court-ordered to occur before July 3, the country, at least politicians and their supporters, opted to focus more on the elections than precautionary health measures. This seemed a risky endeavor given Burundi had run its own elections just a month before with the 55-year old incumbent dying of what was likely COVID-19 less than three weeks afterward.
Nonetheless, elections are like catnip for a political officer and I was giddy with excitement in the run-up to the June 23 poll. Part of the excitement was the “will they or won’t they” uncertainty over whether the election would happen before July 3 or if it would be postponed — either due to the need for more time to organize the proceedings or because of the spread of COVID-19 (or both). Only two weeks before the President finally appointed the members of the new electoral commission that would oversee the management of the election and results. A week before the government attempted to unceremoniously force the Supreme Court Chief Justice – who had been at the helm of the court that had made some election-related decisions unfavorable to the ruling party – into early retirement. On top of this were the Embassy preparations for managing some limited COVID-19 compatible way to observe the elections. There was never a dull day and I relished feeling part of something really important and a sense of being very much in my element.
I too tried to think more about the elections than the pandemic.
With help from donors (including the United States), the electoral commission procured personal protective equipment (PPE) and handwashing station materials. But you can lead a horse to water… We can see resistance all over the world (most markedly, perhaps, in the United States) to obeying such guidelines. In Malawi’s favor, polling sites are generally outside, often in dirt schoolyards.
There was just never going to be a great outcome with some 7 million eligible voters and tens of thousands of polling station workers, security personnel, and domestic observers fanning out across the country during a pandemic, especially with a large percentage of the impoverished country continuing to eke out a living having made the choice that the risk of contracting COVID-19 was preferable to them or their families starving. Try to imagine the predicament: weighing the purchase of face masks — selling for anywhere from 500 MWK to 2000 MWK (0.64 cents to $2.59) — for your family against being able to eat a second meal.
Unlike in the U.S., elections in Malawi are not a one-day affair. In the U.S. there are hour-by-hour broadcasts of the tallied votes beginning just hours after voting begins, but in Malawi, polling is generally one day, but the vote count and announcement of final results can take up to eight days. Again, as a political officer, this is exhilarating. I was glued to my television and following online for the updates and keeping our decision-makers and Washington informed. Four days after the election, on June 27, close to 11 PM, the electoral commission announced the winner: following the landmark court decision, the historic election had returned a stunning upset, with the opposition leader, a former pastor who received his Ph.D. in Theology from a U.S. university, restored his party to power after 26 years. And returned the former Vice President-cum-opposition candidate-cum court restored Vice President to the vice presidency once again.
In the immediate days following the result declaration, the new President and new/old Vice President were sworn in (June 28) and inaugurated (July 6). There was a lot of euphoria, especially in Lilongwe. Spontaneous street parties erupted as the anticipated winner made his way from the southern capital of Blantyre to the national capital Lilongwe. Supporters lined the roads. The celebrations went late into the night.
As the election celebrations died down, something else was spreading. And between the swearing-in ceremony, which although outside did not involve social distancing or much mask-wearing, and the inauguration, which the new President scaled down significantly from a major event at a 40,000 seat stadium to a small affair at a military barracks in the capital.
Malawi confirmed its first COVID-19 case on April 2, making it one of the last countries in the world to do so. It took the country 85 days, nearly three months, to get to 1,000 cases, but only two weeks, just after the elections, to double that number. That may seem low compared to numbers in the most-affected countries like the United States, Brazil, India, Russia, Italy, and the United Kingdom. But the spread, though bad in a few hotspots like South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt, has not been as much on the African continent as on others. But the numbers are rising and in places like Malawi, where the medical and economic infrastructure was weaker to begin with, may have more devastating consequences.
Elections in the time of COVID – is it a good idea or no? Democracy won here in Malawi and it was an incredible privilege to have a ringside seat to witness that historic moment, but COVID is still carving out its mark in history. Malawi never had an option for mail-in voting, not like in other countries. Now the population is reaping both the rewards and the consequences for its in-person voting. And I am still here to experience it.
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