ZAMBIANS should not be too concerned about President Edgar Lungu speaking out on the Coronavirus pandemic because he already addressed the nation on the disease outbreak though Parliament, says Chief Government Spokesperson Dora Siliya.
And Siliya, who is also Minister of information and Broadcasting, says Zambia is yet to reach a stage that would justify and warrant locking down, as this measure would negatively impact the economy.
Speaking on ZNBC’s Special Interview, Tuesday, Siliya argued that President Lungu, through his Presidential address to Parliament on March 6, issued instructions that led to the measures currently being undertaken by government to fight the spread of COVID-19.
“The President was the first to speak; if you recall on the 6th of March, and many times along the way, whether it is through Cabinet yesterday (Monday) and through other different platforms. I think it is important that we are not doing a copy and paste here; we are not doing an immediate reaction here; we are a government with systems and we have a plan that is scaleable. You have heard the Minister of Health (Dr Chitalu Chilufya) repeatedly say that we began with technical levels, public health institute. We geared up to the Ministry of Health; we geared to the Council of Ministers to ensure a multi-sectoral contingent plan with the necessary financial support. The President is the Head of the country; he is the Head of Government; I am only Minister at his pleasure. I said in the beginning the President was the first in his address to the nation to say, ‘government must go in high gear,’ he gave that instruction,” Siliya said in defence of President Lungu who has come under condemnation for not addressing the nation on various economic and social challenges.
“It is because of that instruction that until yesterday (Monday), close to 3,000 people had already been screened through our ports of entry. It is because of his leadership that we are already talking about a contingency plan and budgeting to ensure that we even scale up further. It is because of his leadership that we are saying up to now, we have not seen in the country transmission of the disease, all the three cases we have, have been imported into this country and it could have been worse if he had not initiated the instruction from as far back as the first week of March to say, ‘let us begin screening people, even before we had recorded any disease.’ It is because of his leadership that we are saying, now, that it is important that we scale up further; it is now at the Vice-President’s (Inonge Wina’s) Office. Yesterday, (Monday) he took charge at Cabinet and it will be expected that, at the right (time) and if they are some very draconian measures to be announced that he will take charge.”
She insisted that President Lungu was pre-occupied with several issues in addition to the deadly COVID-19.
“So, the President is pre-occupied on the outside; but trust me, he is pre-occupied that if we get one more case, it is not a good thing and some measures may really create suffering for Zambians at family-level. The President was elected by the people at this point; he can only lead. Some people want him to be ‘copy and paste’, like ‘this one has done this so you must do this.’ Like I said, the President has to put a lot of things into consideration; he hasn’t got the luxury of getting it wrong; he needs to get it right the first time. He must say to himself: ‘okay, if the worst comes to the worst, we have to close down the country,’ in a land-locked country? What do we have? Do we even have the drugs to attend to the same people we want to serve? Do we have the basic necessities in terms of food to serve the same people we want to serve? And what lessons should we learn from this process going forward?” she asked.
Siliya said government was still evaluating whether or not to completely lock-down the country by closing its borders, in view of both the negative and positive implications of such a decision.
“Now, the debate is: should we now close our borders? That is under government consideration; extremely high-level consideration because we have to consider where is the risk coming from? As at yesterday (Monday), the Minister of Health has recommended that the highest risk for us is that, Zambians go through the south route a lot, whether flying or through buses, and we have the highest number in South Africa. As a country, now, we need to make decisions: should we actually close down these borders with Zimbabwe, with South Africa? What is the implications of that? How do we police that? How do we ensure compliance?” Siliya wondered.
“Even us, we now talk…these are discussions that are going on within government so that when we implement these decisions, we implement them properly so that people don’t come back and say, ‘no, in fact, we should have done this.’ Remember, we are a land-locked country; even as we fight the Coronavirus, we want to make sure that at the end of this Coronavirus, there will still be an economy to salvage. If we say, ‘close all shopping malls; all markets; all businesses…how many members of the Zambian public will be going home with no income?”
Siliya stressed that the country had still not yet reached that extreme level of lock-down.
“The worst scenario is a lock-down, even as we should be talking about stocking up, the Minister of (Commerce) Trade (and Industry, Christopher Yaluma) is business talking to all food importers in the country, all food producers in the country, ‘what is the food situation in the country?’ These are issues that are occupying the President that, ‘where are we?’ While our colleagues, our opponents may have the luxury to just make recommendations every day, we have to deal with real people’s lives, that, yes, there is a health issue, but there is also a social economic issue. So, we have to think: ‘what are the worst case scenarios that the country closes for one week, for 14 days, for 30 days, that the extreme case of lock-down happens?’ If we close borders, is it just for people because we need fuel in the country; we need drugs to fight the same ‘Corona’ (sic). We are land-locked, we don’t have the luxury of other countries that have seas that can actually say, ‘okay, we have closed this border because our seas are open; we can still receive our logistics’,” Siliya argued.
“We all have to come to a point where we get evidence-(based) advice from the Ministry of Health to say, ‘at this point, we have to escalate further and maybe really go to worst (case) scenario of a lock-down.’ We are not there yet! The advice we have received from the Ministry of Health, now, is first the use of common sense: ‘stay away from public gatherings.’ If you have a flu, a cough, stay away from business; stay away from work so that you do not risk other people at this point this is where we are.”