Zambian President Edgar Lungu barred on Wednesday campaign rallies ahead of elections scheduled for Aug. 12, noting that large gatherings risked spreading the coronavirus.
Lungu, a lawyer, is pitted against economist Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND), whom he narrowly beat in the 2016 elections.
The country is affected by an economic crisis after it failed to make payment of a coupon on one of its dollar bonds in November, dragging it into sovereign default. Opposition parties have mocked the president’s handling of the crisis.
Speaking at the launch of his own campaign in the capital Lusaka, clad in dark green jumper and cap which represent the colors of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), Lungu told the hundreds of party supporters gathered that he would not hold public rallies, and expected opposition parties to follow suit.
Lungu said: “Therefore, in my capacity as Head of State and the government, I hereby direct the police service and the ministry of health to ensure enforcement of the COVID-19 pandemic health regulations and guidelines without fear or favor.”
“What will it benefit you to be holding rallies, but then sacrifice the lives of our citizens and voters to COVID-19 and death?” Lungu added.
The country’s coronavirus positivity rate, which was nearly 1% for most of May, increased to around 3% on Tuesday. Active cases rose to over 900, from nearly 400 at the start of the month, according to the health ministry.
Zambia has reported over 93,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 1,200 fatalities.
Opposition leader Hichilema’s spokesman, Anthony Bwalya, told Reuters the party would go ahead with its campaign rallies, saying coronavirus infections had subsided.