Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Public outrage over perceived recklessness by govt in letting in Indians fleeing Delta variant

As far as the physical and digital streets are concerned, Botswana politicians willfully and recklessly imported the Delta variant from India. That sentiment gained a new currency late last week when it found expression on the virtual floor of parliament and on reaching Facebook, was amplified by a prominent religious leader.

Theories abound as to why there has been dramatic surge in Covid-related deaths. In shutting down liquor trade and imposing an inter-zonal lockdown, the government conveyed the message that the alcohol and travel are fueling the rise in Covid-19 cases. However, there is an issue that the government officials, from elected political leaders to civil servants, have always been reluctant to talk about: how did the Delta variant, the deadliest so far, come into and spread in Botswana?

Last Wednesday, as parliament resumed after the President’s Day holidays, the Gaborone Bonnington South MP, Christian Greeff, echoed what both streets have, either rightly or wrongly, been saying since the Delta variant started wreaking havoc across the country.

“The [health] minister just said that Batswana were going around spreading the virus,” Greeff said from his office at the Parliament Annexe via live feed. “I want to tell the minster that I disagree with what he said. If the minister and the task team had any seriousness in them, they wouldn’t have allowed people from India to come into Botswana in large numbers while restricting the movement of Batswana.”

Less than an hour after Sunday Standard published those words on its Facebook page to tease the MP’s contribution, more than 1000 commentators had expressed full support for the MP. “From now on you are my favourite just because of the truth you just said today,” wrote Mpot Vincent Nthoiwa in a comment that summed up virtually all other comments. Those same sentiments had been expressed four days earlier when the front page of the upcoming edition of Sunday Standard went up on the Facebook page. The lead story was “Botswana is Regional Covid Hotspot.” In seeking to explain how that happened, Taolo Remmogo Kgasa wrote on the comment board: “We welcomed a lot of people from India, now we are paying the price.”

The price, which is being paid in blood and treasure, is extremely high and as President Mokgweetsi Masisi could so easily predict in his national televised address on July 13, “the situation of the pandemic will worsen before it gets better.” The unusually colour-coded map shows that most Botswana zones are turning white – meaning that the 14-day moving average per 100 000 people yields more than 50 cases. On July 16, Gantsi, Boteti and Chobe were green (had less than 10 cases in terms of that metric) but three days later, they turned red (between 25 and 50 cases, same metric). When we went to press, only Chobe remained green while all the other zones (Greater Gaborone, Greater Palapye, Greater Francistown, Greater Phikwe and Maun) were white. When Masisi addressed the nation, Botswana had recorded 80 154 positive cases, with 8 970 active cases and 1253 deaths. The latest figures from the Ministry of Health Wellness show that the situation of the pandemic is indeed worsening: 97 657 positive cases, with 12 093 active cases and 1375 deaths.

Greeff’s bold comment put MoHW on the spot and in attempting to address public concern that the MP only echoed, the Assistant Minister, Sethomo Lelatisitswe, only complicated matters for both himself and his principals. According to him, the government followed supposedly enlightened health protocols that other countries had also followed.

“Most of the Indians coming into Botswana are businesspeople, most are citizens,” he told parliament on Thursday.

Public response, as relayed via the Sunday Standard Facebook page, ranged from bitter to angry to vicious to downright insulting. The public outrage is real because people are literally dying. This is unlike the usual mischievous commentary – like the non-delivery of the long-promised but never-arriving electric car. The outrage is real and some unscrupulous politicians could exploit it – if they are not already doing so.

While responding in more measured tones, John Mazebedi Tebogo II was scathing in his (factual) response to Lelatsitswe’s assertion: “Well resourced countries like USA & European Union countries suspended them! No one coming from India was allowed to visit or travel for business, school or leisure! We opened our borders for them.” In making that same point, other commentators added Australia to the list of countries that shut their borders to travelers from India – Australia refused entry to its own citizens, some of whom had been doing business in the Asian nation, from coming into the country.

Using simple but highly impactful vocabulary leavened with a note of levity, Lerato Smith dismantled the minister’s argument for the relaxation of rules to accommodate people who are supposedly both businesspeople and citizens: “So an Indian can travel all the way from Mumbai to do business in Gaborone but I as a citizen of Botswana I can’t travel from Gaborone to Francistown to do business? The lightening that will strike u is still doing push ups in Nigeria.” Some more commentators, self-identifying as both citizens and businesspeople, said that they were denied the privilege extended Indian-origin businesspeople. Wrote Chip-Size Malibala: “What kind of rubbish response is that… [We couldn’t visit our poultry farms and our sorghum crop went to waste at cropfields because of lockdowns during which issuance of travel permits was suspended. Indians can’t wait because they are more of businessmen and businessladies than we are.” Punctuation and all, the Tswanglish reads in the original: “Ne re palelwa ke goya go cheka dikoko tsa rona le mabele gotwe Di Lockdown ga gona Di permit while Indians bone can’t wait ke bo business man and lady more than us …”

Among the aggrieved is the former national leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Botswana, Bishop Dr. Cosmos Moenga whom, it is important to note, is also a member of the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). The latter may colour the opinion of some but even within the ruling Botswana Democratic Party itself, there are those who echo the sentiments he expresses.

“Someone sold us as a nation,” writes Moenga, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Ngami parliamentary seat in 2014. “To justify the unjustifiable will espouse them even more. Everyone in this world knew what was happening in India in regard to Covid. To allow Indians to run away from Covid in their country and spread it here in the name of business is a very reckless excuse. Someone must be held accountable for this mess we are in as a country.”

Some have already identified that someone (President Masisi) and typical of a sentiment that increasingly finds expression both on and offline nowadays, are champing at the bit for the arrival of 2024 when Botswana will go to the polls. The 2024 general election would present an opportunity to replace the BDP with the UDC. The irony here is that the 2019 general election campaign of the same UDC was primarily sponsored by an Indian. It has actually taken a BDP (not UDC) MP to give voice to grave concern from the streets about the government opening up borders to people fleeing a Covid hotspot.

The irony living in the present is that it could well be that the Delta variant surge has absolutely nothing to do with Indians who arrived in Botswana when there was an outbreak of this variant in India. There are actually more reasonable than unreasonable people in Botswana who are interested in facts only. Tragically though, there has been highly suspect conduct on the part of the government, the Indian High Commission and certain sections of the Indian community. Lelatisitswe would have been more helpful had he explained this issue in its entirety.

Why did the first consignment of vaccines doses from India – officially a “donation” to Botswana – disproportionately benefit Indian-origin people at a house owned by an Indian-origin Motswana, which house didn’t appear on the list of official vaccination sites? Why was there an unprecedented number of arrivals from India at the precise moment that the Delta variant was wreaking havoc in India and when it was being reported in the media that India’s wealthy were fleeing abroad? Did any of those wealthy Covid-19 refugees, who are neither citizens nor have business interests in Botswana, enter the country during that period? In raw numbers, how many arrivals does “most” in his statement represent for both Indian-origin citizens and businesspeople? What, between inter-zonal travel and alcohol trade on one hand and dramatic increase in arrivals from India, really caused the dramatic spike in infection and deaths?

There has been public communications failure to fill these and other information gaps. And, while the cageyness on the part of the minister may be enabling him to save face, it is also heightening racial tensions which, truth be told, have never stabilised at room temperature.

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