Apart from the political figures on the rostrums, the bulk of party supporters in campaigns ahead of the Saturday’s governorship election in Edo State regularly flout the COVID-19 protocol.
The two major political parties in the September 19 election, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC), have virtually gone round all the 192 wards across the three senatorial districts of Edo State.
Campaigns for both parties effectively kicked off on July 25 (PDP) and August 7 (APC) respectively.
However, PREMIUM TIMES observed through the physical presence of our reporter in some of the rallies and pictorial shreds that in the electioneering period which spanned over one month, apart from the major political actors, their supporters did not use the face masks and there was also no social distancing.
The pandemic which first emerged in Wuhan, China in December last year has swept through the world killing thousands. It has killed over a thousand persons in Nigeria so far.
The NDDC (Nigeria’s infectious disease agency) has advised that strict health protocols such as physical distancing and wearing of face masks be adhered strictly to as the world struggles to get a vaccine for the highly contagious virus.
Following the upswing of the COVID-19 in the country, Godwin Obaseki, the state governor, in a gazette signed on May 28 banned political gatherings that could make direct primary possible in the state.
But after the successful party primaries, the COVID-19 protocol which the gazetted law was protecting seemed to have been ignored even by the ruling PDP as the majority of those present in the rallies which attracted no fewer than 500 supporters did not use their face masks.
The PDP and APC have embarked on a ward-to-ward campaign to sell their manifestos and curry the votes of the electorate in all the 192 wards in the state.
Besides the campaigns, the two major contending parties in the election also had meetings with various ethnic communities in the state where the COVID-19 protocol was not fully observed.
For instance, on the day the APC flagged off their campaign at the University of Benin Stadium, more than 60 per cent of the well over 10,000 party supporters did not use face masks.
Subsequent rallies in Edo north, central and south for both parties also followed suit.
Not more than 20 per cent of the crowd in each rally centres had their face masks worn. There was also no physical distancing as required by the COVID-19 protocol.
The COVID-19 protocol for campaigns as spelt out by the National Centre for Disease Control and the Independent National Electoral Commission stipulates that social distancing and the use of face masks must be observed during public gatherings.
As of Monday, Edo had 2,610 confirmed cases, 2,420 discharged and 90 still on admission with 100 deaths recorded.
Chris Nehikhare, Publicity Secretary of the PDP in Edo, said the party had always “preached the use of face masks and social distancing before commencing campaigns in all the wards they visited” but noted that “some defiant supporters failed to heed the advice.”
Mr Nehikhare said, “We took the COVID-19 protocol very seriously. At every rally, it was the first thing we discussed before we started campaigns and we provided hand sanitisers for those that did not come along with face masks.
“But we were disappointed to discover that many people did not wear their face masks on the campaign grounds. As we speak, however, we are educating them that they cannot cast their votes without the use of face masks.
“Most of the community leaders have been passing these messages because it is prevalent in the rural areas. We try to pass the message that COVID-19 does not discriminate, it could affect anyone and there is a need to follow the protocol.”
Also, Chris Azebamwan, the state publicity secretary of the APC, said his party “promoted the use of face masks all through the period of campaigns”.
“We made concerted efforts to promote the COVID-19 protocols and we had branded face masks that we gave out to our supporters. On the day of the election, we are going to ensure that we provide unbranded face masks. It was an official policy that we promote the COVID-19 protocols,” Mr Azebamwan said.
Complaining about the development, Yakubu Musa, a former Chairman of Etsako West Local Government Area, said the problem is not just about the campaign “but the people not believing that the COVID-19 pandemic was real”.
Mr Yakubu said, “The problem of COVID-19 is not just about the campaign, the truth is that most of our people do not believe in the existence of COVID-19. The National Orientation Agency still needs to do a lot of campaign. Personally, I have talked to some of these followers and they tell me that they do not believe there is COVID-19.
“Some said the coronavirus is for those who have money in society. The locals do not believe the existence COVID-19, some attribute it to a high fever that can be cured with local herbs. They do not just want to believe, that is the problem.”
Mustapha Bello, a Benin-based lawyer, said he was worried.
Mr Bello said, “At the start of this inception of this campaign, the governor, Godwin Obaseki, insisted that they adopt a very self-conscious system of conducting party primary, which he called the indirect mode (delegates only), but the other group insisted that it must be direct primary (all eligible party members).
“He (Mr Obaseki) opined then that it was more dangerous to gather a crowd. In trying to push that, a lot of persons felt it was not sufficient and convenient. A rally is something you cannot control because they are not in the hall, it has multiple entries and exit routes, and unfortunately, you cannot drive your supporters away because they are not putting on their masks.”
He, however, said the decline in the number of new cases was a “source of succour”.
“So, the joy is that there seems to be a reduction in the spread of COVID-19, nobody has come out to say that the political rallies in the last few days have led to an upsurge in the spread, not even the NCDC that has come out with that report.
“I am sure that they are also conscious of the need that while it is important for us to keep safe and continue to use our masks, it is important to note that the rate of spread is dropping. I agree to a large extent that some party supporters at rallies did not use the face masks, but I do not think that it is a deliberate policy that was planned by the political parties,” Mr Bello said.
Joseph Elegide, an Edo-based activist, said party supporters possibly lowered their guard due to “election frenzy.”
Mr Elegide said, “Right from the inception, even when the feasibility of conducting this election was being debated, I was one of those who compelled the government to go ahead with the election, yet things happened the way it did. They tried to let us believe that they would adequately allay our fears but that has not happened.
“Election comes with so much frenzy and when this happens people are bound to lose their guards and they throw caution to the wind. The actors themselves believe that they have to be alive to reap the benefit of what they have planted but the common man in the street and their supporters with whom they ride to glory are not cautious and it is the character of our people.”
Meanwhile, in his reaction, Patrick Okundia, the state Commissioner for Health, said measures were put in place to ensure compliance, but he did not rule out ‘defiance’ by party supporters.
Mr Okundia said, “The state is still on top of its response to COVID-19. We have four testing machine centres in the state and sample collections and testing are still going on. The number of confirmed cases has continuously been reducing, even in some cases, we do not have new cases.
“Most people in the rally are compelled to use their face masks but it is also possible that out of 100, a few defiant persons may come in. We are doing our best to sensitize people further.”
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