Maputo — Despite the pandemic of the Covid-19 respiratory disease, the Mozambican parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, began its first ordinary session of the year, as scheduled, on Wednesday.
The government has banned all gatherings of over 50 people, but made an exception for meetings, such as parliamentary sittings, that are deemed to be in the interests of the state.
The Assembly has 250 deputies. Support staff, security, invited guests (including members of the government), and media professionals, push this number to well over 300. To make matters worse, the Assembly is poorly ventilated.
To allay fears that conditions in the Assembly favoured the spread of the coronavirus, the Assembly's general secretary, Oriel Chemane, announced last week that the number of guests has been restricted. For example, the government was only allowed to send five of its members to accompany Prime Minister Carlos Agostinho do Rosario to the opening session.
As for journalists, only the team of the publicly-owned Mozambique Television (TVM) is allowed into the parliamentary chamber. TVM must offer its footage to the various private television stations. Print and radio journalists can work from the sound-proofed rooms overlooking the chamber.
These marginal restrictions were introduced when the number of people who can attend gatherings stood at 300. The reduction to 50 rendered them irrelevant.
The ruling Frelimo Party announced on Tuesday that it is only sending between 126 and 130 of its 184 deputies to the Assembly, claiming that this would allow deputies to keep at least a metre away from each other.
The spokesperson for the Frelimo group, Jacinto Capito, claimed that not only Frelimo, but also the two opposition parties, Renamo and the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM) had agreed to restrict the number of deputies present at the sessions to no more than necessary for the parliamentary quorum (125 of the 250 elected deputies).
But Renamo seemed unlikely to reduce voluntarily its number of deputies (60). The spokesperson for the Renamo group, Arnaldo Chalaua, said that implementing the changes required for the social distancing measures recommended by President Filipe Nyusi would require a new law, otherwise the fundamental rights of deputies would be violated, "since we are not in a state of emergency".
The smallest parliamentary group, that of the MDM, said all six of its deputies would be present in the plenary sessions.
At the Wednesday opening, AIM could see little sign of social distancing. In the plenary room, many deputies were sitting next to each other, with much less than a metre between them. On the positive side, at the entrance to the building, hand sanitising gel was offered, and staff were disinfecting surfaces and floors in the canteen and lobby areas.
As usual, the opening session consisted of mostly anodyne formal speeches from the chairperson of the Assembly. Esperanca Bias, and the heads of the three parliamentary goups.
All spoke of the need for measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and Bias added "rapid action is needed to overcome the effects of Covid-19 on the economy". She called for "continual intervention by the central bank to support price stability and economic growth, maintaining the resilience of the financial system".
The head of the Renamo group, Viana Magalhaes, criticised "some figures in the ruling party who went abroad and did not immediately submit themselves to quarantine when they returned".
He named no names, but the person who most obviously fits this description is Eneas Comiche, the Mayor of Maputo and a member of the Frelimo Political Commission. Comiche was in London on 10 March at an event also attended by Prince Albert of Monaco. The prince later tested positive for Covid-19.
Comiche returned to Maputo on 13 March, but only went into voluntary quarantine on 19 March, the day he learnt of Prince Albert's condition. In the intervening six days, Comiche attended several meetings, including of the Frelimo Political Commission. The fear is that he might have spread the virus to others attending those meetings.
The head of the Frelimo parliamentary group, Sergio Pantie, declared in his speech to the plenary that preventive measures are easy and cheap, and "by complying rigorously and scrupulously with medical recommendations, we can all build a wall to stop the spread of this enemy if public health".
But Pantie is a member of the Frelimo Political Commission, and so he almost certainly met with Comiche last week. If so, a wise step for him to take would have been voluntary quarantine.