Zambia recorded its first case of Covid-19 on 18 March 2020. The Government through the Ministry of Health and with support from cooperating partners has been implementing a wide range of measures in order to deal with this pandemic.
Until now, the measures being implemented can be considered to generally be consistent with the principles of rule of law. The Government of Zambia has issued two statutory instruments (SIs) issued in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In line with Section 9 of the Public Health Act, the first, SI No. 21 of 2020, declared the Coronavirus Disease 2019 as a notifiable infectious disease. Measures aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19 are set out in the second, SI No. 22 of 2020. Such measures include mandatory quarantine for patients and those suspected of suffering from Covid-19. It is, however, other measures, such as restrictions on movement of people, mandatory wearing of face masks, and the prohibition of gatherings of more than 50 people that are said not to be backed up by any legal instrument. This leads constitutional law experts and some local NGOs such as the Chapter One Foundation to call upon government to declare a state of emergency or state of disaster which would allow the authorities to then issue further legislation to ensure that the rule of law and human rights are upheld. Until now, these calls have been ignored. This raises concerns of the potential for illegal enforcement and abuse of power.
The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) will proceed to hold three local government by- elections while adhering to the COVID-19 statutory preventive, control and management procedures. The holding of these by-elections is for the ECZ to ensure that despite the COVID 19 pandemic, the Commission is also in compliance with article 57(1) of the constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Act No. 2 of 2016 which provides that where a vacancy occurs in the office of a member of parliament, mayor, council chairperson or councilor a by-election shall be held within 90 days of the occurrence of the vacancy.
As it is the case in many countries, the measures being taken in response to this pandemic have, in some instances, necessitated limiting rights and freedoms, particularly those pertaining to movement. The government of Zambia is implementing targeted lock-downs in those areas considered high risks. There have been incidences whereby the police acted with excessive powers by beating up people who were found contravening social distance requirements. The Human Rights Commission has since condemned this abusive enforcement. Most importantly, the Minister of Home Affairs has also weighed in condemning the police.
With regard to government rhetoric, the government of Zambia has been creating an enabling environment by ensuring that all the stakeholders are consulted and informed of the steps that are being taken amidst the pandemic. The government through the Ministry of Health has been responsive to stakeholders. It has also involved other line ministries in the scalable guidelines and measures put in place to combat the pandemic. Furthermore various sections of society including the private sector have responded positively by contributing various items and funds towards the fight against the pandemic. The opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) President Hakainde Hichilema donated hand sanitizers and other hygiene soaps to needy communities as part of his contribution towards the fight against coronavirus.
So far, it would appear that the fight against this pandemic in Zambia is not being taken advantage of by political opportunists. On a positive note the political parties have used the pandemic to improve their social media presence. The ruling patriotic front has been using various platforms to reach out to the party members. The UPND has also been using various platforms to engage the electorate especially the youths.
Assessed from the standpoint of the humanitarian situation, it is apparent that coronavirus, will worsen the poverty and inequality levels. In Zambia, 90% of the workforce is estimated to work in the informal sector, with the majority in subsistence agriculture. Social distancing and closure of hotels, lodges, casinos, bars and restaurants has had a serious impact on businesses that are dependent on human movement such as the tourism industry. The services sector, such as banking, hotels, retail businesses, public transport services, air travel all account for a substantial portion of the government’s tax collection. However with a fiscally stressed economy the humanitarian situation will become worse.