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Elections in the time of COVID-19; health authorities issue guidelines

NOTHING UNDERHAND – Polls Chief Mahinda Deshapriya says Commission keen to hold elections as soon as possible

ECONOMYNEXT – With Sri Lanka’s upcoming parliamentary elections around the corner – though the official date is still up in the air – the country’s Ministry of Health has issued a series of guidelines to be followed by the National Election Commission (NEC) when conducting the polls amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

General

The NEC may consider offering the option of postal voting or advance voting to large private sector institutions. This is due to a employees commuting to their hometowns in large numbers just before an election, which could pose a risk of coronavirus transmission.

However, this option is recommended only if it does not further delay the election, which has already been delayed several times.

The officer in charge of any setting (training, polling booths, counting centres etc.) should ensure those officers who are under quarantine for COVID-19 and those who have not completed 14 days of the post-quarantine period are not called or reported for duty/training.

Specific settings 

Some of the guidelines issued for campaign rallies are as follows.

1) It is recommended to use print and electronic media especially television for election propaganda and minimize physical meetings to avoid exposure. 

2) If propaganda meetings are held, the number of participants shall be limited to a maximum of 100 persons. 

3) Processions are not recommended. 

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4) The organiser shall inform the area medical health officer (MOH) at least three days before starting the meeting.

5)  All participants shall wear face masks at all times and chairs shall be arranged in such a manner to maintain a one-meter distance with each other while seated.

6) A spacious venue shall be selected so as to maintain the required distance. Maintain adequate ventilation in the venue.

7) Speakers shall also maintain a one-meter distance with each other.

Regarding the distribution of propaganda materials to household, the Health Ministry has advised that the number of people be limited to three. Any person with fever with or without respiratory symptoms shall not participate in this activity. 

Everyone participating shall wear masks and maintain a one-meter distance with each other at all times and the person distributing the bills shall sanitise everyone’s hands before and after each session.

Candidates are also advised to limit the number of election offices with limited opening hours, as well as to limit the number of people inside the offices to prevent large gatherings.

Postal voting 

Campaigners are advised to arrange postal voting for health staff who are monitoring the COVID-19 control activities during the election if it does not require amendments to the relevant acts and to consider granting postal voting for all health staff if possible.

Meanwhile, heads of institutions or an appointed officer must ensure that a spacious place (such as a hall) is selected for casting votes to ensure physical distancing of one meter between persons inside. The Health Ministry also asks to minimise the number of agents from political parties as much as possible.

All voters shall be informed that anyone with a fever – with or without respiratory symptoms – must report for voting as the last voter in a particular session. The voter will be asked to queue at least one meter behind and arrangements shall be made to allow them in batches to minimise overcrowding. All officers and voters should wear masks and maintain a one-meter distance between them.

Polling booths

Polling booths will be arranged in such a way that voters enter from one side and exit from another while maintaining a minimum number of agents per polling booth.

One-meter distance points will be marked in the queue on the floor both in and outside the polling booth, while a transparent protective screen (perhaps made of thick polythene) will be installed between voters and officials with an opening for official transactions. This, the Ministry said, is to ensure maximum possible distance between officers and the voters.

Polling Booth arrangement

The polling agent area will be arranged with one-meter distance among themselves and one meter behind the voters’ queue, while the queue of voters should be arranged in such a way so as to not get too close to officials or other voters. 

Voters shall be provided with hand washing facilities at the entrance and all voters shall wash or sanitise their hands before entering the polling booth and wear masks at all times. All officers shall also wear masks and wash their hands before entering the polling booth.  Officers are also to be instructed not touch the national identity card (NIC) or the polling card of the voter, but to instead ask the voter to show it.

The voting box as well as the pen used for voting must be sanitised every hour. Medical Officer of Health (MOH) staff shall sanitise the centre once voting is over.

Conducting the election in the quarantine centres

Polling will be conducted in quarantine centres, and the guidelines issued for this are the same as those issued for polling booths but with some additional measures. These including requiring all election officials to wear full protective personal equipment (PPE) – surgical mask, gloves, face shields, full body cover and boots – before entering the election hall and to remove it only after the session is over.

Agents shall wear face shields in addition to the face mask and keep a two-meter distance with voters instead of one meter and all sides of the ballot box shall be sanitised after the session and then sealed and put in a polythene bag.

Counting centre etiquette

 All staff and everyone entering shall wear masks and all staff and everyone entering the hall shall be checked for body temperature and anyone having a temperature above 370C or 98.40 F shall not be allowed inside.

The venue will be selected and arranged in such a way as to maintain a one-meter distance between counting staff and also between counting agents. The ventilation of the counting centre shall be improved with exhaust fans if possible while a separate  the area of counting agents will be arranged with desks placed one meter behind the counting officers in order to avoid close contact

Hand washing/hand sanitising facilities will be provided at the entrance with tissues for wiping hands and a bin (with a polythene bag inside) to discard tissues while ensuring all officers, agents, security personals and any other person wear masks and wash their hands before entering the counting centre.

Special instructions for police officers

Police officers who are allocated for various election settings will have to wear face masks at all times and either wash their hands or sanitise them before entering  any election setting (polling booth, counting centres, etc.).

Police officers will be provided with individual hand sanitisers and those who are attending to duties at quarantine centres are to be provided PPEs.

Moreover, individual officers will always keep a distance of one meter between each other and if an officer happened to touch individuals (as in protests) they are to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water. If the situation is known in advance, they must wear face shields before attending to such duties.

Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya said yesterday that the commission expects to circulate these health guidelines among political parties and request from Health Services Director General Dr Anil Jasinghe to gazette these guidelines, with particular emphasis on regulations on campaigning.

Mock elections will be kept in all the electoral districts on 14 and 15 June as they need to properly demonstrate polling centre officers how to spray germ-killing liquid to the hands of voters.

During a mock election held on Sunday (7 June) hand-washing by voters before entering the polling centre proved unsuccessful as the ballot papers got wet with when voting, said Deshapriya.

He further said that the use of sanitizer gel was also found unsuccessful because the gel sticks in the hands and get stick to the ballot papers as well.

“Now we decided to spray to voters’ hands mixing 75 or 80% isopropyl alcohol and water as it will dry instantly while ensuring that germs are killed,” he said.

The use of PPE and face shields by the officers at the polling centres has also been unsuccessful, he added.

Deshapriya further said that the election date will be gazetted on the 10, 11 or 12 June and that the election date would be 60-70 days from the date the commission were given the health guidelines.

Previously the commission only needed 35-40 days to prepare for a national election, but now, under the so called new normal, the NEC working under that time frame was difficult as it is impossible to work for 12 straight hours wearing a face mask. (Colombo/June9/2020)

 

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