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Home Editorial Battle to prevent spread of COVID-19 at the polls

Battle to prevent spread of COVID-19 at the polls

On October 8 the Ministry of Health reported the alarming news that 186 frontline workers were infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, 123 of them being from the security forces — the BDF, the Police Department, and the Coast Guard.

We know the annual September celebrations were scaled down, and there were no military parades through the streets or war games at the MCC Grounds, but our security forces were well represented at all official events. There were also numerous unofficial events where they were present. It might be coincidental, but two weeks after the Independence Day celebrations, we saw the spike in cases in their ranks.

We are now full swing in the main election season, with four political parties and a number of independent candidates in the race to see which of their candidates might get to sit in the House of Representatives for the next five years. The stakes are high, very high, and it makes for the kind of environment for the spread of diseases, particularly a virus, in this case an extremely dangerous one.

In normal times we wouldn’t have to try to contain our energy, so over the next three weeks the standard bearers and their campaign teams would have been in high gear in their respective divisions, putting up signs, visiting the homes of voters, kissing babies, hugging and shaking the hands of everyone they meet, and holding high level meetings to strategize and big rallies to fire up their supporters. Nomination Day, which for this election was on Wednesday, October 21, would have been a day of high energy with massive parades/motorcades as the candidates showed their muscle.

Living in a period when there’s a pandemic is not living in normal times, and that was evident on Wednesday. This year’s Nomination Day was a lot more quiet than usual, with both of the main parties toning it down after receiving directives and a plea from the Commissioner of Police, Mr. Chester Williams.

The virus is ever-present, and most or all of the candidates know that they have to build in safety measures into their campaigns, but even the most conscientious ones will have to be bridled because of the excitement over the prize that awaits the victors. So far so good — for the most part we controlled ourselves on Nomination Day, but we have three more weeks to go.

The biggest hurdle will be on Election Day itself, when thousands of Belizeans go to the polls to choose a new government. It’s been less than 70 years since we got universal adult suffrage in Belize (1954) and 42 years since 18-year-olds got the right to vote (1978). Belizeans know this is a precious right, paid for by generations gone before, and even though we are in a pandemic, we expect that Belizeans will not forget that being able to vote is no small thing, and they will bravely go out and cast their ballot, all the while making every effort to be safe.

The authorities really must make a great effort to ensure that the process is as safe as it can be. On October 13 the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) set out its Covid-19 Protocols for General Election, one month before the election, so there is time enough to improve on what they have offered.

Electors outside the polling station must wear masks, and they must sanitize their hands before entering the polling station. Pregnant women, the elderly, and the disabled will be placed at the head of the line.

The presiding officer, the polling clerks, and the polling agents will still carry out their duties in a room, but they are to be seated six feet apart, and they are all to wear masks. Voters entering the polling stations are to show their ID and/or announce their name, after which they are to remove their mask briefly so that the officers inside the room can verify that they are who they say they are. Voters must sanitize their right index finger before dipping it in the indelible ink, and after receiving a sanitized pencil from the presiding officer they will then proceed to mark their X on the ballot paper.

The authorities say that if all of us respect the safety procedures on Election Day, there shouldn’t be an increased spread of the disease. We would have thought serious consideration would have been given to having the voting take place under tents, so there would be lots of fresh breeze passing through to improve the quality of the air. The Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) and the health authorities might consider the suggestion that simple dividers made of plastic be used to reduce the exposure of persons working in the room.

We all know that events like a general election make a hotbed for disease spread at this time when we are in a pandemic. A public servant who called the WuB Morning Show on Wednesday said she thought the safety measures that have been included by the EBC are not sufficient, and one recommendation she made was that the election be held over three days, instead of one.

A big concern has to be the movement of thousands of people within such a limited span of time, from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., on a single day. The EBC can wash its hands of this situation, but the health authorities cannot. The movement of people to and from the polling stations on a single day will definitely result in increased exposure of Belizeans to the disease, so every effort must be made to address this matter. Holding the election over two or three days would definitely make the process safer.

The counting of the ballots could also be a very feverish exercise, especially if the counting is done on a single night. The counting officer should probably be equipped with an electronic system to amplify his or her voice, so there is no need to shout, and maybe the political agents should be separated from the public officers conducting the election by partitions made of plastic.

The Director of Health Services, Dr. Manzanero, has said that it was expected that the number of cases of COVID-19 would have been going down at this time. They are increasing. The numbers scream out that the best efforts of our authorities have not been sufficient thus far, so nobody should be feeling as if they alone have all the ideas and insights. We must be humble; and we must study every suggestion that is made, because the lives of our people depend on it.

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