The zero-risk option does not exist but organizing elections in September 27 is feasible if preventive measures are strictly applied by everyone from now on, according to Yves Coppieters, an epidemiologist and professor at the Free University of Brussels (ULB), School of Public Health, in a statement for G4media.ro.
As the number of Covid-19 cases keeps rising in Romania, holding local elections in less than 2 months raises questions about the associated risks. In the past 24 hours, Romania reported 1356 new cases and 35 deaths due to the coronavirus, compared with 200 daily cases early June.
In a speech given yesterday at the Cotroceni Palace, President Klaus Ioahnnis stated that “if the pandemic does not worsen and if very strict and specific measures are implemented, elections can be organized”. After all, “going to the polls is not more complicated than going to […] the store to buy bread” he stated.
According to the epidemiologist Yves Coppieters, “the President’s statement would be accurate in a context where everyone respects the rules, but this is not always the case”.
For him, organizing safe elections is nothing impossible but it requires a greater vigilance and has to be done under certain restrictions. Here is are these conditions he is speaking about:
First, “the government needs to prepare it upstream, as soon as possible”
“If the sanitary measures are set up and enforced just during the electoral period, then it is completely pointless, apart from making people feel safe while they are not”, he said.
Therefore, Romanian authorities should define a specific sanitary guideline as soon as possible. “Romania needs to find its threshold for Covid-19 by the end of August to start the elections with a momentum remaining downward”.
“It does mean that the authorities must assess quite soon the efficiency of the current sanitary measures to take the decision to tighten them up or not” he added.
Secondly, people should respect the rules, “Masks should be compulsory in crowded outdoor spaces and private events forbidden”
“If you want the elections to be safe, people need to respect certain rules as soon as possible”. These rules are, what the epidemiologist calls “the triad mask, hydro-alcoholic gels and physical distancing”, as well as wearing a mask in city centers, beaches and avoid important family gatherings. Indeed, he reminded that most of the clusters are linked to family gatherings and weddings these days. Yet, “if you are alone in the street, of course there is no need to wear a mask” he said.
But then, even if the government has a perfect guideline, there is a need to enforce the law. “Most of the Covid-19 cases following the elections in France and Serbia were linked to a poor enforcement of the sanitary measures” he highlighted. For this reason, “fines and coercion are unfortunately the best options for now. If you take a look at France, people were mostly against the mask at the beginning but once they had to pay 135euros, the huge majority plays by the rules” the epidemiologist said.
Thirdly, “the Romanian authorities should think about a specific voting procedure for the people at risk”
For Yves Coppieters, the elections cannot be held according to standard rules. “The poll stations will have to enforce the use of masks and gels as well as social distancing”.
“We can also imagine a specific procedure for the people at risk, over 60 years old or with comorbidities. Voting online for instance.” Assessors should also bring their own pen he said. Although 90% of the infections are linked to inhalation of airborne particles, the coronavirus remains active on surfaces such as tables and pens, he stressed.
Last, there is also a need to prepare the “after-elections” to avoid rallies and parties from the side of the winners
“The risk of Covid-19 spreading also comes from the days after the election linked to rallies like in Serbia”. On June 21, the Serbian authorities organized the parliamentary elections. Since, many high-ranking officials in the ruling coalition have been tested positive for Covid-19 after attending a victory party.
Extract from President Klaus Iohannis’s speech: “It is a perfectly legitimate to discuss whether or not we should hold elections on September 27, but I want to dissociate the political debate from the factual discussion. Personally, I am convinced that if the pandemic does not worsen and if very strict and specific measures are implemented, elections can be organized. Since I talk about elections, I want to be very clear: the voting act can be organized in good conditions. Going to the polls is not more complicated than going to the hypermarket or the store to buy bread. Physical distancing, safety measures may be set up. That is possible. What will be quite more complicated to organize will be the election campaign which, if the pandemic does not slow down or, God forbid, if the situation worsens, will take place in very non-standard conditions for an election campaign. In my opinion, we have to take all these aspects into account by mid-August, and then we will take the decision, whether to resume the election debate or move forward.”
Photo: Yves Coppieters / Free University of Brussels
Note: Antoine Dewaest is working as an intern for G4Media, enhancing the understanding of the Romanian society. He is studying at Sciences Po Rennes, France.