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Parliament confronts Covid 19 challenges

Scene of Video Conference of Parliament Session

 

  Story by George Sanzila

Windhoek- As the Covid 19 pandemic continues to disrupt institutions around the world, the Namibian parliament has not been spared. The pandemic has forced parliament, as it has done with many other institutions, to adopt innovations such as information technologies that are now largely entrenched in the workplace. The Namibian legislature had to rapidly transform, despite the heavy cost burden that comes with such complex yet necessary technologies. The Speaker of the National Assembly, Professor Peter Katjavivi, was pleased with the progress made in moving towards ICT compliance. This was achieved with the support of development partners. According to Prof Katjavivi, this is aimed at ensuring that the work of parliament continues despite challenges posed by the virus, such as maintaining social distancing and the risk of infections.

Parliament measures and interventions

During crisis such as this, the work of parliament becomes even more crucial, as it is expected to scrutinize government decisions, authorize expenditure such as the recently concluded appropriation bill, and debate and pass legislation.

The National Assembly has been holding meetings and sessions virtually uninterrupted for the first time in its history, in response to and in compliance with the state of emergency regulations that limit the number of lawmakers that can be present at one time in the chamber. The first session of the 7th Parliament began on the 24th of March this year but was halted due to the outbreak of the pandemic, and resumed later on the 26 May 2020, until its conclusion on Wednesday 8 July 2020.

Only 50 members were hosted in the chamber to ensure adherence to public health regulations, but also to ensure that the constitutional requirement of forming a quorum of voting members was met. Members that were not physically present in the chamber were connected via an online video link in separate meeting rooms in the parliament building.

The tabling of the Appropriation Bill (the national budget) and its subsequent debates, as well as the State of the Nation Address by H.E. President Hage Geingob, have all been held with these new innovations, including social media livestreaming.

In continuing to adhere to state of emergency regulations, the National Assembly has further installed hand sanitizer dispensers at strategic places, temperature screenings, as well as the wearing of masks. Prof Katjavivi stated that compliance with regulations was as important as the need to adapt to the new changes.

 

“Parliament is currently subject to the same public health and social distancing measures as schools, places of worship or businesses. We need to adhere to the rules. Our role is more vital than ever as we are mandated to pass emergency laws, allocate resources and scrutinize government action. We have to adapt to the changes”, said Katjavivi.

Future of parliament engagements post Covid-19

According to Katjavivi, who has been an ardent proponent of moving towards an e-parliament, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for re-inventing the future, and has helped fast-track his long held dream of transforming the Namibian parliament into a paperless institution.

“Notwithstanding this pandemic, ICT comes with infinite opportunities that should be exploited by parliament in its quest to extensively engage the electorate. This crisis has forced us to fast track the realization of the e- parliament concept. This will help improve information access and dissemination as well as empower of lawmakers post Covid-19”, stated the Speaker.

In order to boost the National Assembly’s newly introduced livestreaming services on social media platforms, plans are afoot to expand such services to multiple online spaces, including the parliament website, with options for indigenous language translations whose audios could in future be shared with radio stations for further transmission to the electorate. This is keeping with the parliament mantra of inclusivity and taking its services to the grassroots. The parliament Facebook page has become popular and reaches over 70 000 users daily since the resumption of sittings and livestreams. This is in contrast to the negligible numbers of below 1 000 daily users previously.

Katjavivi recently revealed plans to upgrade the biggest conference hall at the National Assembly, and the chamber, into fully-fledged virtual centres. The conference hall was refurbished last year. He noted that the facility would transform the business of parliament even after the end of the pandemic.

“We want to upgrade it into a fully-fledged virtual centre with video conferencing facility. It will serve as a point of reference to transform the Namibian parliament to become flexible to be fully utilized as a virtual centre, post Covid – 19 pandemic so as to facilitate parliament to continue to meet virtually”, said Katjavivi.

The Speaker further suggested that under the new normal, there was a need for reskilling in order to facilitate workforce optimization. “We would like our staff to be trained on various applications, including language translation of the already installed conferencing system as well as compatibility of video transmission in the facility during virtual meetings”, noted the Speaker.

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