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Africa: To Vote or Postpone? Elections in the Time of COVID-19

13 July 2020

More than 20 African countries were to hold elections this year. As countries tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, there are valuable lessons learned from important elections held during previous Ebola outbreaks.

When it comes to elections, 2020 was supposed to be a busy year for Africa. Voters across the continent were to take part in presidential, parliamentary or municipal elections in at least 22 countries in Africa, starting with the Comoros in January and ending with presidential and parliamentary elections in Ghana in December. COVID-19 has, however, thrown a wrench in the works.

The first case of COVID-19 in Africa was reported in Egypt on 14 February. As more African countries started announcing their first cases, Togo held its presidential elections on 22 February. Guinea and Mali followed in March and April respectively. A week prior to the elections in Guinea, there was only one confirmed case of COVID-19 and only two confirmed cases the day of the elections (22 March).

Mali witnessed a similar situation: no confirmed cases a week prior and 18 cases the day of the election (March 29), although there were over 200 confirmed cases during the second round of elections (April 19). Burundi’s general elections were held on 20 May, and Malawi’s presidential elections took place on 23 June.

With over 489,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 11,500 deaths on the continent by 6 July, and cases still increasing, countries that were set to organize polls in the second half of this year will need to decide whether to go ahead or postpone to a later date.

Due to the nature of COVID-19, overcrowding at polling stations, contact with infected surfaces by numerous individuals, and increased health risks to the elderly and immunocompromised individuals represent just some of the major obstacles to safe elections.

By June, some countries had already chosen postponement for some form of scheduled election. This includes parliamentary and regional state council polls in Ethiopia and legislative elections in Chad, to name just a few.

Going Ahead with Elections

Countries choosing to go ahead with important elections face a balancing act of managing the virus and deploying the necessary resources and material to conduct credible elections safely.

According to the United Nations and other elections experts, providing sanitation stations and clear directions for maintaining social distancing, and requiring or supplying personal protective gear are some of the many efforts that could help make in-person voting as safe as possible. Following guidance from health officials is a priority.

In addition, inclusion of, and dialogue with, women and other potentially marginalized groups, and transparency in keeping the public informed about election changes and adjustments related to COVID-19 would be essential.

Lessons from Ebola

This is not the first time African countries have faced conducting elections during a public health crisis.

In 2018, the presidential election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) went ahead, including in some Ebola-affected areas, following precautionary measures being put in place at polling stations including temperature screening and hand sanitization. Similarly, critical legislative elections took place in Liberia in 2014, with voters having their temperature taken, advised to maintain distance from each other and to wash or sanitize their hands before and after voting.

Anthony Banbury is the former head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) that was set up in 2014 to scale up the response to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. He is currently president and CEO of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Writing for his organization on elections and COVID-19, he says there are valuable lessons learned from the Liberia experience.

“Planning for elections must start as early as possible; electoral administrators must work closely with public health authorities, security services, and other key state actors; and the public must be kept well-informed throughout the planning process so it understands the rationale for any changes made to voting processes,” Mr. Banbury says.

African countries on the 2020 election calendar for the latter half of the year include Côte d’Ivoire – presidential (Oct 2020), Tanzania – presidential and parliamentary (Oct 2020); Seychelles – presidential (Oct-Dec 2020); Burkina Faso – presidential, parliamentary (Nov 2020); Namibia – regional councils and local governments (Nov 2020); Mauritius – municipal; among others.

While each country will ultimately make the decision based on national needs and legislative frameworks, for now many governments are focusing on saving lives by strengthening their COVID-19 response and managing the socio-economic impact of the pandemic on the lives of people.

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