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Parliament responses to Covid-19 pandemic

Parliament responses to Covid-19 pandemic

THE outbreak of Covid –19 pandemic in 2020 posed and continues to place a huge challenge in various countries not only economically and socially but also in the manner in which institutions have to operate.

The pandemic severely affected parliaments along with all other governance institutions. Parliaments across the globe were therefore, forced to alter the way in which they can operate in order to stay afloat while carrying out their Constitutional mandates of legislation, representation and oversight over Executive functions with the same degree of efficiency and effectiveness.

One may, therefore ask, what made most Parliaments tick during this time of uncertainty? First, most world parliaments have already institutionalized the use of modern technology in their operations.

In other words, virtually all of them have transitioned from using papers to paperless parliaments, that is, e-Parliament. This transformation has made it easier for such parliaments to be resilient and adaptive to changing circumstances.

A research has shown that e-Parliaments are more flexible in terms of attuning their procedures and processes in line with the Covid-19 protocols.

Secondly, Regional and global inter Parliamentary Organizations such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and the Interparliamentary Union (IPU) were quick to evolve tools that would assist parliaments cope with the pandemic.

The CPA, for example, issued a CPA toolkit for Commonwealth Parliaments and Legislatures on the Covid–19 in 2020.

The toolkit, among other things, outlines measures and recommendations that can be adopted by both parliaments and Parliamentarians in order to continue to deliver on the legislature role of scrutinizing legislation and delivering democracy during a global pandemic.

Thirdly, Parliaments, the world over, are at the heart of a functioning democracy. When countries are in turmoil, or ravaged by a catastrophe such as the Covid–19 pandemic, it is imperative that parliaments remain vigilant by striving to offer their much needed guidance, advice and oversight over the Executive.

It is worth noting that, the measures adopted by parliaments to cope with the Covid 19 pandemic are similar in many respects. Overall, they range from social distancing to remote arrangements as illustrated below:-

The UK House of Commons, for example, adopted a number of changes in the way Members of Parliament could participate in Parliamentary business in the Chamber during the pandemic. Some of the changes include:-

Social distancing measures in the chamber to meet Public health guidelines; Remote participation in Parliamentary proceedings; Introduction of new ways of voting, including on extension of the existing proxy voting scheme; Call lists published in advance to manage attendance in the chamber during Parliamentary business.

The National Assembly of the Republic of South Africa on the other hand, has undertaken a number of measures to stay vibrant during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of the measures include:-

Screening of members for possible exposure to the Coronavirus; Installation of hand sanitizers and availability of an on-site Medical Support team for screening and testing; Reduction in the number of staff Members on the Parliament precincts; Closure of Parliament to the Public until further notice.

The National Assembly of Tanzania is among Institutions that did not suspend business since the outbreak of the Pandemic. It should be recalled that the Covid–19 gained momentum in March 2020 when the Parliament was about to start transacting one of its cardinal functions of debating and passing the 2020/2021 Government budget.

Indeed, Committees of the House were already carrying out some field visits to development projects in various parts of the Country in readiness for budget scrutiny.

Notwithstanding the above predicament, the Parliament and its Committees went ahead and successfully undertook the constitutional mandate of budget scrutiny until 16th June 2021 when it was dissolved to pave the way for general election. Thanks to the visionary leadership of Speaker Job Ndugai, for his steadfastness in the matter.

So, how did that happen? First, like the UK House of Commons to which I referred earlier, the National Assembly of Tanzania adopted social distancing measures by making use of its Old Chamber (Msekwa Hall) alongside its new debating Chamber.

With this arrangement, Members of Parliament are at liberty to choose which chamber they would wish to use and the Speaker is furnished with a list of Members wishing to take part in the debate from either of the two Chambers in advance of each sitting of the House.

Underpinned by the use of modern technology, this initiative proved to be effective. Secondly, all entrances to the precincts of the House are fitted with hand sanitizers and manned with nurses to ensure every entrant is masked and gets his/ her temperature screened.

Thirdly, the number of MPs that were allowed into the Chamber at any one time was limited to 150 out of the total of 393 members. This measure was applied in the formative days of the outbreak of the pandemic in April, 2020. In addition to social distancing measures, the Parliament has recently reduced the number of hours per each sitting.

The House meets at 2pm till 7:00pm instead of the previous practice of commencing the session at 9:00 in the morning till 7:45 in the evening with a four hour break in the afternoon.

This intervention has necessitated the suspension of the relevant Standing Order of the House that requires Parliament to meet from 9:00am to 7:45pm.

Moreover, the Questions and Answer session was reduced to only one hour instead of the usual practice of one and a half hours when the House is not in the budget session. Besides, the Parliament has undertaken measures to restrict visitors.

Under normal circumstances, the Parliament would receive not less than 300 Visitors everyday mostly students who come to acquire Civic education on the operations of the Parliament.

The number of visitors was dramatically reduced and limited to only Government Officials and Journalists accredited to Parliament.

Furthermore, MPs’ Guests and organized group visits were also suspended until further notice. In another development, Committees of the House were enjoined to make use of commodious rooms to avoid congestion and rotate in their use, in a bid to abide by social distancing protocol.

In this respect, the first batch of Committees occupied the rooms from 9:00am to 1:00pm followed by the second batch from 9:00 Pm to 7:00 in the evening. In addition, the number of witnesses or stakeholders that appeared before Committees was reduced markedly with the number of government officials limited to five.

In yet another bold initiative and in keeping with the Government’s call for people to vaccinate, the Parliament has setup a Covid–19 vaccination Centre within the precincts of the House. This initiative has offered both MPs and Staff an opportunity to voluntarily acquire a jab at a time of their own volition.

The Parliament also recently invited Medical experts to sensitize MPs on the need for vaccination and its long term imperative in ending Covid-19 Pandemic.

A Report of an Economic Experts Roundtable organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in July, 2020 concluded that, “during the global pandemic, digital technologies have become a critical enabler of connectivity, facilitating Continuity of regular lives and connecting people more than ever before”.

The Covid-19 pandemic has therefore strengthened Parliaments through mainstreaming modern technology in their operations at a pace unsurpassed before. It is evident therefore that, the post -19 pandemic will see Parliaments better positioned to carry out their legislative, representative and oversight roles with even more efficiency and effectiveness.

The Author of this article is the Director of Communications and International Relations Department, Parliament Tanzania.

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