Vaccine Delay Fires Up Zambian Opposition as Election Nears

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Zambia’s government is too focused on elections in August to work on plans to inoculate its people against the coronavirus, putting health workers at unnecessary risk, according to the main opposition leader.

The nation is one of only two in southern Africa yet to bring in vaccines. The other is eastern neighbor Tanzania.

“Our government is sleeping on duty,” Hakainde Hichilema, president of the United Party for National Development, said in an interview Thursday from Lusaka, the capital. “Not even one arm of a citizen of Zambia has gotten a jab. It’s ineptitude.”

Vaccine Delay Fires Up Zambian Opposition as Election Nears

Hichilema is set to challenge President Edgar Lungu in general elections on Aug. 12. The pandemic has exacerbated economic decline in Zambia, which last year became the first African nation to default on its debt since Covid-19 emerged. The vote is expected to be close, with Lungu also facing unease over inflation that has accelerated to the highest level in about five years.

Lungu narrowly retained power in the 2016 elections. Hichilema was arrested and detained for four months the following year on treason charges after his motorcade failed to make way for the president’s on a rural road. The case was later dropped.

The cabinet will meet “imminently” to discuss vaccine plans, and will move rapidly to start immunizing citizens, Health Minister Jonas Chanda said on state TV Thursday. A health ministry spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a text message seeking comment on Hichilema’s remarks.

Zambia has recorded 85,889 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 1,175 deaths, although a study published in the Lancet Global Health journal this month suggested that actual cases may have been far higher.

“They seem to be more interested in tightening their grip on the political side of the equation, in order to maintain political power,” Hichilema said. “Front-line health staff, we’re putting them in harm’s way every single day they wake up to go to a clinic, to go to a hospital.”

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