Nepal is going to the polls on May 13 this year to elect its local governments. A glorious practice in institutionalising the federal system of governance adopted by the Nepali state, these elections are crucial in ensuring and promoting grassroots democracy in the country. But, unfortunately, this celebration of civil rights and liberties is going to be held under the repulsive shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have reasons to be optimistic for now. The peak of the Omicron-fuelled third wave looks to be behind us and the number of daily new infections has stayed below 500, with some days even recording less than a hundred cases. And we do not have much reason to believe that the pandemic will flare up once again in the country – at least not in the two months before the local elections.
But as the popular saying goes “Never say never.” So, we must be prepared for a potential resurgence of the coronavirus and have mechanisms in place to hold the vote without putting the health and safety of the people at risk. This is because we will need to hold the vote. The terms of the incumbent representatives expire this year and the constitution does not envisage a situation when the local levels are without their elected leaders. So, come hell or high water, we will need to hold the elections and we will need to safeguard the lives of the voters. God forbid this situation ever comes, but if it does, we will, unenviably, need to devise a way to have our cake and eat it too!
Fortunately though, we do not have to be pioneers. Over the last two years, many countries, including our neighbour India, held elections with precautions in place which can help us learn how to do it in our country should the need arise. Of course, with a pandemic, there is no one-solution-for-all and we will need to formulate specific strategies to fit our particular national context. But by looking at other nations, we can get a general idea of the things we may need to do to allow people to exercise their constitutional right to vote without endangering their lives and the lives of those around them.
One of the first precautions we could take is also one of the simplest. We could make masks mandatory in polling stations. People would have to take them off for a while to get their identities verified but they would be required to have them on at all other times. Masks have been scientifically proven to help decrease the chance of infection and many countries have required voters to wear masks.
We can also check the temperatures of everyone in line to vote. In South Korea, for instance, 30 million people cast their votes in their legislative election of April 2020 and every one of them had their temperatures checked before being allowed in the booth. Those who had a fever, as well as those displaying suspicious symptoms, were taken to a separate quarantined area to vote. Similarly, countries like Mongolia and Serbia required people to stand at least one metre apart from each other and we can ask them to do the same in Nepal when lining up at their polling stations.
This might cause delays but we must also disinfect polling places because the coronavirus can spread through commonly touched surfaces. Ideally, this disinfection would involve chemicals and health experts but, if that is not possible, we can at least make some rudimentary efforts. Poland, for example, allowed the booths to air out for 10 minutes every hour.
The Election Commission would also have to extend voting hours because first, taking sanitary measures will make the voting process slower and second, longer hours mean there will be fewer people crowding to vote at the same time, decreasing chances of transmission.