Sunday, June 23, 2024

Once more, Covid-19 law being broken right under VP’s nose

It is something that nobody should have to say again but one that unfortunately, needs to be repeated: COVID-19 law is once more being broken right under the nose of Vice President, Slumber Tsogwane. It is something that the VP may, as he did the first time, feel the need to refute, but as was the case the first time, there is more than ample photographic evidence.

When the first consignment of COVID-19 vaccine doses (being donation from India) arrived at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport (SSKIA), Tsogwane was on the tarmac to ceremonially take delivery of it. Tsogwane’s presence necessarily meant that officials from the Office of the President, notably those from the COVID-19 Presidential Task Force, were in attendance. Also in attendance were officials from the Ministry of Health and Wellness, the Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation, the Indian High Commission, Botswana Post as well as members of the media. It is likely that there were also officials from the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, the Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana as well as social butterflies with clinical need to be seen at high-profile events that are covered by the media.

In addition to the wearing of lower-face masks, one of the main protocols recommended by the Director of Health Services is social distancing of at least two metres apart from those nearest to you. The Emergency Powers (COVID-19) Regulations, which were passed by parliament in terms of the Emergency Powers Act, encode this protocol. The science of this century-old public health protocol is that visible fluid droplets containing pathogens travel about two metres.

However, there was no strict observance of this protocol at the airport when the vaccine arrived. Non-dignitaries wanted to be in prime position around the dolly (the platform on wheels that airports use to move heavy objects) that bore the three boxes containing the vaccine doses. Prime positions were severely limited – which led to jostling, which cancelled out social distancing. This protocol was cancelled out in many more ways. It has become standard practice to hold umbrellas for able-bodied dignitaries, including politicians who are always terribly keen to emphasise their physical fitness when they run for office. One of Tsogwane’s bodyguards held an umbrella for him. However, unless your arm is two metres long, this courtesy (which is not a legal requirement) makes social distancing (which is a legal requirement) impossible.

The dolly was parked on the near-side edge of the apron and minutes earlier, a party that included Tsogwane as well as the Minister of International Affairs and Cooperation, Dr. Lemogang Kwape and that of Health and Wellness, Dr. Edwin Dikoloti, had trooped to it, with dignitaries leading the way. A couple of metres away from the dolly, a police officer imposed himself between the dignitaries and non-dignitaries, in the process, blocking the passage of the latter. Unless a police officer’s arm is two metres long, putting it on people means you are violating the social distancing law. The latter was a basic event management issue that could have been planned for but everything seemed to have been done on the fly. After Tsogwane had made a short speech to a non-social-distanced crowd, him, Dikoloti, Kwape and the Indian High Commissioner were marshalled into position for an obviously unplanned and non-social-distanced opportunity. In the melee all around them, a male voice was heard to plead, “Social distancing please!”, as people jostled for prime spots around the dignitaries.

As the first – and save for mask-wearing, the second vaccine arrival ceremony was another Trump rally where social distancing was not strictly observed. Trump, if you still remember him, is the “low-IQ racist sex pest” (message on protestor’s placard) whose ineptitude is part of the reason corona became a global pandemic.

Initially, the ceremony was very well-ordered, with dignitaries (among them Tsogwane, Dikoloti and the EU Ambassador to Botswana, Jan Sadek), sitting in the shade of a canvas gazebo rigged up for the ceremony. The small crowd clapped when an Ethiopian Airways jet carrying the vaccine landed. After taxing to a stop on the apron, the consignment was offloaded onto a dolly that was driven not too far from the gazebo. At the time that Tsogwane and Sadek made speeches, what had earlier been an orderly crowd morphed into a non-social-distanced flash mob. Even at the end of the ceremony, some of the attendees stood around in small, non-social-distanced knots, chit-chatting.

Televised vaccine arrival ceremonies have important PR value in that they communicate the message that help has finally here to a public that is under attack from a once-in-a-lifetime virus and very worried. If you have lost family members, the sight of vaccine doses arriving at the airport at least gives you conscious hope that corona will not wipe out your entire family. However, there is certainly a much safer way to communicate that message, to allay public fears. On the basis of what the government itself has been saying, airport arrival ceremonies that the same government is in charge of, have potential to spread the virus.

Health risks aside, there are aspects of the spectacle that defy logic. Since 1966, Botswana has been importing life-saving medication whose arrival at the airport has never been made an expensive spectacle. When the first anti-retroviral drugs arrived, Vice President Ian Khama never officiated any arrival ceremony at an airport named after his father. Cancer, sugar diabetes, high blood, malaria and tuberculosis medication at all government health facilities is imported but ceremonies are never held at the airport when this medication arrives.

The powers-that-be have determined that someone might hijack trucks carrying the vaccine or that the trucks may be involved in an accident. Such trucks are escorted by on both ends by traffic police upon leaving the airport. At a time that money is too tight to even mention and fuel prices are going up, these escorts are a solution to a problem that the government didn’t need to create. It is indeed possible that someone may attempt to hijack the trucks or that the trucks may be involved in an accident. However, the same thing can happen with trucks carrying medication for other diseases. If the trucks had left the airport quietly (as they do with medication for other diseases), there would have been no need for a police escort that consumes fuel whose prices are rising.

Some may think this is hair-splitting but the one other curious thing about this spectacle is that nobody knows what was in the boxes – and never checked. Adults who ordered clothes from South African manufacturers via mail-order catalogues would have memories of being confronted with red moccasins shoes upon opening a package from Mahomedy’s when they had actually ordered black Crockett & Jones shoes. If you noticed, nobody opens the boxes to check whether there are indeed vaccine doses inside, whether the order has not been shorted and when they will expire.

By a quirk of fate, Tsogwane is somehow never too far away when COVID-19 law is broken during some official ceremonies that involve the Office of the President. Last year, when a parade of donors, mostly businesspeople, called at OP to make donations, there was flagrant violation of COVID-19 law (mask-wearing and social distancing) right under his nose. Sunday Standard wrote a story whose authenticity he would later challenge at another mock-cheque presentation ceremony. This was a futile attempt because there was photographic evidence (which we published as proof) all over the Internet. A year later, little seems to have changed.


Read this week's paper