The threat of being infected with the Covid-19 coronavirus did little to deter Botswana’s Members of Parliament – all of whom were quarantined – as the House endorsed a six-month state of emergency declaration.
The state of emergency could see the landlocked diamond-rich country facing an extended and much stricter lockdown and preventative measures against the spread of the deadly virus.
This comes after a 28 day “extreme lockdown” which kicked in last Friday.
A declaration of a state of emergency by President Mokgweetsi Masisi led to a special Parliament sitting that has been underway since Wednesday to get a resolution in support of the declaration.
Parliamentarian exposed to Covid-19
As parliamentarians returned to the House on Thursday following a day of vigorous debates where the opposition was widely opposed to Masisi’s state of emergency, they were met by the news that the number of Covid-19 cases in the country had increased from six to 13.
There were signals of anxiety and undertones of panic among some parliamentarians who wanted the House to be adjourned after it was announced that a nurse who had screened some of them for the virus on Wednesday was now among the country’s new statistics.
Others made it clear that they would rather go straight into quarantine than going back to their families and exposing them to the virus in case they were infected.
The House proceedings were – probably for social distance adherence purposes – held at a hall in the capital Gaborone and not at the Parliament building, but there were questions raised about whether it would lead to further spread of the virus among the lawmakers.
It was subsequently resolved that the House disallow business of the day to deal with the order paper.
In the end, Masisi was the winner having secured Parliamentary endorsement to his state of emergency declaration.
Masisi’s party, Botswana Democratic Party, remains the majority party in the country which makes it easy for them to get things their own way.
On why Botswana needed a six-month state of emergency, Masisi explained during a meeting with political parties on Monday that the country had adopted a “prevention is better than cure” approach in its Covid-19 fight.
“I took advice from health professionals and that is what forms our approach. If we delay acting to combat this virus, the impact on us will be astronomical … our hospitals will not be able to cope,” Masisi said.
“We have no time to wait and see how the pandemic develops.”
He said unlike other countries, Botswana was still lacking in terms of resources, infrastructure and personnel that would be used to tackle the pandemic. Masisi said it was advisable that among choices the country had and “given our level of development and the destruction we have seen Covid-19 causing”, that Bostwana embarks on a “robust preventive strategy”.
“Our best defense shall always be our capacity to prevent; that is just a fact,” he said.
“If you think of beds that might be needed, we have a maximum of up about 150 ICU beds. When a model is developed, it is established that when we are really hit we would need up to 50 000 beds and approximately 2 000 ICU beds,” the president said.
He added that one “highly-trained nurse” would be needed for two ICU beds and a doctor for four ICU beds.
“We would quickly realise that we don’t have the personnel to do that,” Masisi said.
“This ailment spreads faster than the wildfire and that is why we prevention will always be our primary strategy,” he said.
Masisi also said that the Public Health Act was limited in powers in terms of dealing with the virus for a longer period.
He said the director of public health was not empowered to deploy other state resources like the army in times like this.
State of emergency and alleged tender irregularities
While they were aware that numbers would not favour them, opposition parties spent time expressing themselves and explaining their robust opposition to the state of emergency.
United Democratic Front Member of Parliament and leader of the opposition benches, Dumelang Saleshando, said they just had to make their stance clear especially in the proceedings that were carried live on national television and radio as well as on social media platforms.
Saleshando said they were worried that the state of emergency would give Masisi more powers to take decisions unilaterally and that it could also lead to tender irregularities.
He further argued that the army does not need a state of emergency to be deployed as “they would normally around this time of Easter be out there in the streets helping out”.
Saleshando accused Masisi and his party of battling to come up with concrete reasons that qualifies the declared state of emergency and that if the Public Health Act had limited powers, it could have been brought to the House for amendment like had happened with other acts.
Saleshando said the notice of the state of emergency was “suspicious” and not solely aimed at fighting the virus.
He alleged tenders were already awarded to some people with political connections without going through the public tender process.
“The intention is to steal from government,” the opposition leader said.
He was challenged by Botswana’s deputy president, Slumber Tsogwane, to produce evidence for his allegations which he could not.
Meanwhile, Masisi said this week his only intention with the state of emergency was in the best interests of the citizens.
“There cannot be any dictator under our constitution. I used the constitution to come and plead with you, not direct you to endorse the measures I am proposing,” he said.
He said the judiciary and the media would provide the “checks and balances required”.
“I intend using the declaration of the state of emergency solely for the purpose of protecting our people against the decimating potential of the novel Covid-19 virus,” Masisi said.
Meanwhile, a decision was taken for parliamentarians to self-isolate, except for those who felt their homes or options at their disposal were not good for that.
In that case, they would be provided with a place by the state.