Covid-19: Weak Parliament, wayward President

Views from the 12th House 

Hon Dithapelo Keorapetse

In secretly flying to Namibia to attend President Hage Geingob’s inauguration, President MEK Masisi, put himself and the nation at risk, defied Botswana’s travel ban and lost the moral authority to lead the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic because he failed to lead by example.

Parliament adjourned sine die on Friday 20 March. The main reason is the coronavirus global pandemic which has already killed just under 15 000 people. The Speaker convened a General Assembly on Tuesday following a Business Advisory Committee meeting. The latter had advised that there be a variation of the almanac to have the House adjourn until further notice because of the pandemic. To be able to adjourn for the said reasons, MPs acceded to the advice of the Business Advisory Committee to extend sitting hours to 8 o’clock at night and a longer sitting on Thursday, from 0900 hours to after 1900 hours. The main reason was to dispense with a government Bill, the Appropriation Bill/Budget, and other miscellaneous Government Business.
It is going to be hard for MPs to disseminate information because they cannot convene large gatherings such as Kgotla meetings. They may have to scale down consultations to small gatherings and find other methods, such as house-to-house outreaches and social and other media.
At the General Assembly, MPs pondered on the best ways possible to deal with the Covid-19. It was realised at the time that almost all countries bordering Botswana, mainly South Africa, have reported positive cases of the virus. South Africa now has more than 240 cases. Some MPs emphasised the need to close down all schools forthwith. The decision subsequently came from the government. Other MPs argued that there is a need to test everyone who has recently arrived from countries with reported cases, especially the hotspots. MPs observed that many people have arrived from China, Italy and other parts of Europe, the USA and South Africa but haven’t been tested. They contended that there is need to clinically clear everyone arriving from these countries to rule out Covid-19 case. Concern about porous borders was also raised by MPs from constituencies with border villages.
The government has decided to ban travel of people to and from Covid-19 hotspots. It has closed schools and imposed moratoriums on public activities. Restrictions have been imposed on bars and other such enterprises. The President has taken the lead in the fight against the scourge. He has set up a team to prepare for when the virus finally gets into the country. He has also discouraged unnecessary internal and international travel. He has, however, negligently and heedlessly defied the travel ban and restrictions by secretly flying to Namibia to attend President Hage Geingob’s inauguration. The President of Zimbabwe, Emerson Mnangagwa, was also in attendance. The President’s irresponsible actions are indefensible. He has failed to lead by example and has therefore lost the moral campus to lead the fight. He has put himself and other government officials at risk. Most importantly, he has put the country at risk. That he has access to many caretakers and other mitigators, as some flatterers argue, is absurd. Prominent people such as Canada’s First Lady, the UK’s Minister of Health, Iran’s Deputy Minister of Health, US White House staff members, actors Tom Hanks, Idris Alba and many other people with more money and caretakers than President MEK Masisi got infected by the coronavirus. The President must simply walk the talk.
The Minister of Finance and Economic Development was not prepared to inform Parliament how he is working on mitigating economic effects of the Covid-19. He could not answer a question by the Leader of the Opposition on the matter. He pleaded for more time as his, he pointed out, was a coordinating ministry and that he needed to consult his peers first. Travel and tourism businesses and others have been affected. Some won’t survive the pandemic unless they are bailed out. Jobs are going to be lost unless the government intervenes. Those who lose their jobs would be expected to pay for their mortgages, rent and other loans. If the government has not started thinking about the negative economic effects of the virus, they must, as a matter of urgency, begin to think about a bailout plan for affected businesses.
Whilst the Leader of the Opposition has given a statement in the House on the need to cooperate with the government in its efforts to fight the pandemic, Parliament has been denied adequate time to debate the scourge. There are also fears to point out areas where the country seems to be unprepared. There is no time to debate the veracity of some interventions, but there is need for people’s representatives to, as they always do, criticise, advice, cajole or persuade the government to intervene in a certain way. If Parliament cannot thoroughly and adequately debate the Covid-19 scourge, who else can debate it? There is always an opportunity for the government to avoid Parliament. For instance, the Minister of Health gave a watered down statement on Monday in the House and a few minutes later a more detailed statement imposing tough measures on various fronts appeared on social media. This shows the extent to which government undermines the legislature. Covid-19 is not a joke. We cannot afford to be euphemistic about anything. We cannot allow Parliament to relent on its mandate to hold the executive accountable. We cannot allow the President to be hypocritical. Neither can we afford incompetence and haphazardness.