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The Covid Conundrum
Episode 320th August 2021 • Democracy! The Podcast • CEPPS Advisor Adrienne Ross, Fmr Deputy Asst Secretary Strategic Communications, US Dept of State, Journalist
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“...what does it take to have democratic governance effectively manage something like a pandemic? [W]e have to figure out how to bring strong, effective public health responses to democratic governments.”  Dr. David Ross, ScD, President & CEO, The Task Force for Global Health.

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All over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned lives upside down, disrupted hundreds of elections, and challenged our status quo of what we typically expect democracies to deliver. 

In this episode of Democracy! The Podcast, we’ll travel to Ethiopia to hear how elections transpired this spring in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak and what might lie ahead for Africa’s 2nd most populous country when they plan to complete the voting process this fall.    

Then we’ll check in on the situation in the Balkans.  Learn what citizens there had to say about what it would take for them to feel safe enough to vote.

And finally, the head of the Task Force for Global Health, Dr. David Ross, sits down with Adrienne to get a 360-degree look at what he thinks has to happen for the Covid-19 pandemic to end.  

Democracy! The Podcast is brought to you by the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS) with support from the United States Agency for International Development through the Global Elections and Political Transitions Award.  

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Democracy! The Podcast is hosted by CEPPS and Adrienne Ross. 

This podcast has been produced by the Consortium for Elections, and Political Process Strengthening through the Global Elections and Political Transitions award and is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development.

Opinions expressed here are those of the host and the guests and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the US Government.  This show is produced by Evo Terra and Simpler Media.

Transcripts

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Hi, and welcome to Democracy!

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The Podcast that shines light on some of the darkest challenges facing the

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fight for democracy around the globe.

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"Democracy will and must prevail."

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[President Biden]

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This podcast is brought to you by the Consortium for Elections and

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Political Process Strengthening direct from Washington, DC, with support

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from our friends at the United States Agency for International Development

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through the Global Elections and Political Transitions Award.

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I'm your host, Adrienne Ross.

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Free and fair elections are the hallmark of democracy.

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And yet, if you think about it, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted hundreds

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of elections since its onset in 2020.

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From Singapore to Serbia from Montenegro to Malawi, even right

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here in Washington, DC, the COVID conundrum has presented new and endless

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hurdles for governments everywhere.

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In a few minutes, we'll get a 360 perspective from Dr.

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David Ross, the head of the Task Force for Global Health.

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But first, how do you safely help a nation execute effective elections for

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the people by the people in a pandemic?

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We head to Eastern Africa with Program Officer Amy Radlinski to take a look.

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In Ethiopia, it's been a challenging few years.

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Back in 2018, in the middle of widespread protests, the prime minister

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resigned and Abiy Ahmed took office.

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In 2019, Prime Minister Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a

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twenty-year stand-off with Eritrea.

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But it's been tricky ever since.

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Ethiopia has suffered political unrest and assassination of a popular

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senior activist, violent ethnic divisions, a fragile power grid,

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rising inflations, and, of course, the backdrop to all of this has

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been the global COVID-19 pandemic.

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So, in the spring of 2020, when the government postponed national

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elections indefinitely because of health risks, political divides

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grew, and violent fighting spiked.

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It's a lot for the continent's second-most populous country comprised

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of more than ninety ethnic groups.

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But finally, in June of this year, the nation voted.

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It was a huge victory for Prime Minister Abiy.

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The National Election Board of Ethiopia said his party won 94%

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of the seats in parliament that were contested in the June round.

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But not everyone could vote.

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So now a second round of elections have been scheduled for September, and all

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eyes look to October when Ethiopia's new government is expected to form.

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What a time it has been for our guests in Addis Ababa.

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Lauren Oing is the Resident Program Director for Ethiopia at the

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International Republican Institute where she expertly supports civil

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society and the political process.

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Aubrey McCutcheon also joins us from Addis.

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He is the Senior Resident Director for the National Democratic Institute in Ethiopia.

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He is an expert on apartheid, human rights, and social justice initiatives.

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And I find it interesting to note that among their long, long list

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of accomplishments, both Aubrey and Lauren similarly hold master's

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degrees from the London School of Economics and have served in the U.S.

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Congress as a staffer and an intern.

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Before we talk more about how you continue to fight for democracy in the middle of a

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pandemic, what can you tell us about the current security situation on the ground?

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Lauren, can you tell us a little bit about what you're seeing throughout the country?

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There's a real battle, it seems to be, for the soul of Ethiopia during

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this democratic transition process.

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And we have seen pockets of tension that's been turned into violent

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conflict over the past year and a half.

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So, of course, the one that's capturing the headlines at the moment is a conflict

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up in the north that's largely between federal forces and forces that are allied

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with the Tigray People's Liberation Front.

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And that, unfortunately, in very recent months and recent weeks

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is really beginning to spill over into other areas of the country.

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Addis Ababa is a bit surreal given the context that Lauren just

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mentioned in the rest of the country.

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It is so far peaceful here, but we do notice an increased presence of

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security forces, road blocks, and so on that are now more visible in the city.

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Outside of Addis, as well, the consciousness about security around

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COVID has waned in recent months.

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Where our is concern that some of the armed conflicts and the

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gatherings that go with that are going to bring another surge.

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But other than that, Addis Ababa has so far been peaceful.

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There have been a few incidents, but we do anticipate that this

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could get worse within months.

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What can you tell us about the attitude of people on the ground

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in Ethiopia towards COVID?

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Overall, Ethiopia's COVID figures look relatively low in comparison to

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other countries, but I think a lot of that has to do with the reality of

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what testing looks like on the ground.

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There just isn't widespread testing.

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So we do know it's a problem, but there aren't good figures on what impact

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COVID has had on the population here.

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That said, when you did have the first few cases of COVID back in March, 2020

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in Ethiopia, the government here was quite swift in passing a number of

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regulations, and a state of emergency, which related to management of COVID.

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We're in, I think now, the third surge.

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The rates have just gone up in the past couple of weeks.

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Although at the same time, there's now a wider announcement that vaccines are

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available, as of today, available for citizens thirty-five years and older.

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So at the same time that we're seeing another surge come about,

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we'll see vaccines become available.

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That change of behavior that Lauren mentioned is quite obvious in Addis and

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even more so outside the capital city.

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Let's go back a few months to this past spring when the national elections

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were held after several months postponement, and the government had

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cited health concerns for their delay.

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What did that delay due to the country's confidence in

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the electoral system, Aubrey?

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Yeah, the delay was quite controversial.

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And there are, obviously, different views on its impact.

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Some groups saw the delay as a manipulation by the government in power

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to delay the elections, purposefully using COVID as an excuse and therefore

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to extend their term in office.

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Others saw the election, the delay as wise, to allow the country to come to

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grips with how to cope and mitigate the risk of COVID during this period

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before they conducted elections.

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Still others have said they've appreciated how much the election board has

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communicated, especially with political parties about its intentions - the delay,

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the need for it, what they would intend to do to make elections safe for people.

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There's been more discussion about that and some appreciate it.

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But there is no consensus at all about whether or not the

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delay of these elections was a good thing for Ethiopia or not.

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In fact, it was one issue that led to increased controversy between the

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sitting government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front that has

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spilled over and led to an all-out war.

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So that delay in elections did trigger quite a number of significant consequences

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for Ethiopia regardless of where you stand on whether it was a wise move.

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And Lauren, despite all these challenges, with funding from USAID you were

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able to continue your programming.

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Yes, when we had COVID, it really threw a wrench in our plans.

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IRI was predominantly working with civil society organizations, and we

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wanted to provide a significant round of capacity building trainings - in

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person was the plan - around the regions to help civil society

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organizations be prepared to engage in conducting better education activities.

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With COVID, we couldn't travel, and we certainly weren't going

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to be bringing groups of people together for in-person training.

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So what we did was we sat with, worked with expert trainers to

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provide remote training, but in a pre-recorded, downloadable format.

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So what we did was, after building these modules, we would invite our partners,

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first by email, and then we actually shifted to doing invitations by Telegram,

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which is a really popular messaging application, to join our trainings.

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They would register on a brief online form, didn't

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need a lot of data to do that.

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And then, once the registration period was closed, we would share with them

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a link to the training materials.

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So they were all downloadable.

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Partners were given about two to three weeks to complete the material,

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and we knew they completed them at the end by completing a completion

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form online, and a brief evaluation.

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With that, we would then, as an incentive, reimburse them by sending

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them a mobile phone data package, recognizing the cost of internet here.

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And it also helped us to be able to capture data on comprehension

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and understanding of the material.

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Our program at CEPPS-NDI has involved political party development and research,

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and then also a program to train civil society groups in election observation.

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Now, in our political party program, when COVID came about, we switched immediately

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to conducting online policy briefings.

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Now, this was a part of our program that we had intended to do in person.

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And, of course, it would have led to a much more fruitful

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dialogue between parties.

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These are multi-party engagements about policy options, whether they

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be economic policy or social policy or human rights policy and so on.

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These political parties were committing themselves to it.

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We had to shift those online, and that meant that we had far less attendance

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than we had hoped for originally.

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Have you found the pandemic to be frustrating?

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What have the emotions been like?

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Like all of us, many of our partners here locally in Ethiopia felt like

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this will be over in a few months.

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Let's just wait it out.

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And we were all optimistic as that.

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And I guess we all still looking around the corner for this to end.

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But we've all realized now that we've gotta be prepared for the long haul, gotta

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be prepared to continue delivering the capacity building work that is our mission

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here in spite of what happens with COVID.

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So we're being as creative as we can.

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And resilient.

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Lauren?

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Yeah, I think one of the most frustrating and trying things about COVID in this

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period and trying to do this kind of programming is for both of us, for IRI and

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NDI, we're relatively new to the country.

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We only came back in - we were here before, were cordially

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asked to leave in 2005, but we came back in, in about mid-2019.

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Aubrey and I arrived a few months later, both around the same time.

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So right when COVID hit, I'd say we'd only really been on the

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ground, as larger teams, for about six months, seven months, maybe.

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So we are really just at the beginning of developing relationships

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and trust with our partners.

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And so the shift to all virtual that early on into building these really

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important relationships was difficult.

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And it must've been an enormous relief when the elections were

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actually held then in June.

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Well, part one went ahead.

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We're still now waiting on, it's a staggered election now due to the

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insecurity and violence taking place in different parts of the country.

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So there are a few regions and some constituencies, a few regions in

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full and constituencies in other regions that have not yet cast it.

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And that's scheduled to happen September sometime.

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So we've had to break this election into two.

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Of course, that has increased costs for us because we have to deploy

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all of our election observers, our trainers, and so on, twice for a

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much smaller effort in September.

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Lauren, can you tell us a little bit what the elections have been like?

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The staggered approach was not what was originally intended, right?

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There was a lot of interest.

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There were quite long lines.

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The official figures on voter turnout are exceptionally high,

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in the high nineties percents.

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There are challenges with these figures because there've been some

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challenges with voter registration, and then also there's no census data.

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And so projections about how many voters there could be are

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based on really flawed numbers.

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So, it's hard to speak very concretely or scientifically about what turnout

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looked like, but, in general, there was good turnout and it was

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largely peaceful, which I think we were all very, very relieved about.

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Particularly given the worsening security context more broadly across Ethiopia,

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in general, there were few security incidents and they were pretty isolated.

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Of course, that does have to do with they didn't hold elections in all

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locations because of security, so you're holding elections in places where

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there's less likely to be problems.

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Aubrey, you mentioned September for follow on elections.

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And October, do we still expect parliament to resume?

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The new parliament will resume, come back into session in October

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after the September elections.

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The risk, though, is that, again, we're in now the third surge,

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and we're holding elections again in the middle of this surge.

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The difference this time than in June is that there will be more

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and more vaccinated people taking part in these elections by the

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time September sixth comes up.

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But we have not yet seen fully enough whether there's

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any vaccine hesitancy here.

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We hear about some, but now there's enough vaccines to make it available

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to thirty-five years and over, so now we'll really see who's hesitant for this

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vaccine and who's willing to take it.

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Lauren, what do you see for the country longterm?

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I think there should be some optimism about Ethiopia's democratic transition

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because I do think there have been some really positive steps that have been taken

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with these elections and the opening of space for parties and civil society to

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engage in a way that they hadn't before.

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There's also been some opening of space with media and the way that they interact.

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But at the same time, I think we can't get away from the fact that the country's

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in the middle of a security crisis and a growing humanitarian crisis.

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And that, quite understandably, will necessarily be a top priority and a

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top focus for this new administration.

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I think we're all anticipating what these elections, the COVID pandemic,

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and the higher security risks, what it will all mean over the next year.

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We know there's a major push for dialogue amongst conflicting parties.

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What shape that will take, what issues it'll focus on, remains to be seen.

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And who will participate?

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Will it be inclusive?

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That seems to be the road to peace.

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Well, we will be watching very closely.

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Aubrey McCutcheon, Lauren Oing, thank you so much for joining us today.

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Thank you.

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Thank you.

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The Task Force for Global Health is an NGO based in Atlanta that counts

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among their many partners the CDC, CEPPS through the International

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Republican Institute, and USAID.

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Since 1984, their sole mission has been to take on the world's

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worst diseases to eliminate them or bring them firmly under control

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to help countries keep people safe.

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Dr.

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David Ross is the President and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health.

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He holds a Doctorate of Science and Operations Research and Applied

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Math from Johns Hopkins University.

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He joins us now to talk about COVID.

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Infectious diseases are notorious for presenting huge challenges to

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democracy and stable societies.

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What have you witnessed to be the number one challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic?

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I think it is public ignorance, public ignorance about the biological nature

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of a virus, and, therefore, public ignorance among public officials

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about what really is happening.

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In North Macedonia with CEPPS-IRI, you and your team set out to help

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the region's governments improve their knowledge of Coronavirus.

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What can you tell us about that experience?

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Wow.

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It was really enlightening, really enlightening.

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And I'm so glad that my colleague, Dr.

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David Addison, and I did that because at the time we did that, the COVID outbreak

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was really just beginning or underway.

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We were a few months into this.

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We were into the governmental actions - should we shut down things?

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How much closing down do we do?

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How much enforcement of masking and that sort of thing prior

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to a vaccine being available?

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What I've learned from that was that we in America, our political culture

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is one of the founding of the country, seeking to maximize your individual

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liberties over the power of the state.

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Rather what we encountered in Bosnia and Herzegovina, those people, they said,

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look, we're not having this problem.

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And partly it was because, as former Soviet states, the population as

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a whole was accustomed to being told something by the authorities,

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and then they would do it.

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Describing the culture that way, then, how did you change your approach

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to working with these governments?

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What was the number one thing you needed to tell them to do?

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They needed less to be told what to do.

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It's much more on the side of technical advice and expertise, rather than how

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do you navigate dealing with the public.

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Heck, in the U.S., we're all wrapped around trying to figure out how can

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I get this governor or that governor to agree that recommending the use

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of masks would be a good thing?

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Whereas for them, it's can we get enough masks?

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At the Task Force for Global Health, one of our programs is the newly created

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COVID Vaccine Introduction P rogram.

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That couples along with our partnership for influenza vaccine introduction.

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Both of these are partnerships with CDC.

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We are funded by CDC, the U.S.

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Government, to help countries implement routine adult vaccine programs,

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effectively respiratory virus vaccines.

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Ultimately, if we do this well, they will be the basis for any adult

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routinely administered vaccine program.

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And once you have a routine vaccination program in place, you can build upon it

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for occasional outbreaks of something new.

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Those programs don't exist in many countries.

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Where have you found the pandemic to be the most challenging?

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I think in the low and middle income world, it is about will we get vaccines

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to them, and how fast, and how much?

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There's a huge disparity, equity issue going on in this world.

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But the challenge with dealing with low-income countries is that it isn't

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just getting the vaccine there, but it's like I was just saying, you

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have to have the ability to move it to where it can be shots in arms.

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And many countries don't have the infrastructure in place

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to actually make that happen.

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So this is going to go slower, much slower than any of us wish it could.

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The thing, if there's a takeaway for anybody here listening, I would say

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just let's keep reminding ourselves that no one's safe until we're all safe.

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We have to get the world vaccinated.

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We know the less people who are vaccinated, the more space there

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is for the variants to develop.

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Exactly.

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Exactly.

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So the sooner you bring infectivity very low, less than say 1% of the population,

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the less opportunity you're giving the virus to mutate into yet another variant.

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And once we mutate beyond what our current vaccines do, then we

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start this whole thing over again.

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You've mentioned the dangers of variants, but as this continues and we

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continue to try to vaccinate as many people as possible, what advice are you

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giving to local and national leaders?

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Please get vaccinated.

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These are the easy questions.

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You know, as our vaccine hesitancy program leader, Karen Ernst, would say

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to you, when you encounter somebody who is vaccine hesitant, don't tell

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them, "Just go get vaccinated."

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Ask them if there are any questions they have that you might be able to answer,

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or that you could help point them to somebody whose advice they might trust,

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where they can become more informed.

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And don't create it as an us versus them.

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Is there anything else you would want to add to this conversation that we've had?

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I'm really glad that you are looking at this from the point of view of democratic

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governing, and what does it take to have democratic governance effectively

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manage something like a pandemic.

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It is clear that authoritarian kinds of governments that can outright direct "Thou

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shalt get vaccinated on the following day at the following place" and make

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that happen, that when it comes to this kind of response, that ability is good.

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But we certainly don't want to trade off our democratic governments for

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that kind of autocratic governing.

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We have to figure out how to bring strong, effective public health

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response to democratic governments.

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Now, with his perspective on what the Balkans have endured during COVID,

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Nermin Nisic is here from Serbia.

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Nermin is the International Foundation for Electoral Systems

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Country Director in Albania, Serbia, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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He is a native Bosnian.

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And Nermin, you've worked all over the world in your career, in Asia, Eurasia,

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Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

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You've also served as IFES' Country Director in Georgia and Kosovo.

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Thanks for being here.

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Thank you for having me.

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What has it been like in the Balkans during COVID?

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I guess it's as challenging as in the rest of the world.

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What was challenging to us was the elections that were the first ones to

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be national elections held in Europe since the start of the pandemic.

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And those were the ones in Serbia, which were initially postponed from March, 2020,

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to June, 2020, and were successfully held.

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Right after that, we had a series of other elections in the region, including in

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Bosnia and Herzegovina in November, 2020.

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You've had to rush to respond to several elections under your

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purview during the pandemic.

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Can you tell us what that's been like?

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It was very important to ensure that elections were credible,

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and that they were also safe to both voters and poll workers.

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But also to others who were involved in election process, be it candidates

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and representatives of the parties.

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We were learning as we go.

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Our interventions were informed by IFES' series on COVID-19, on number

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of which we produced, on number of aspects of holding credible elections.

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But also informed by research that was done locally in each of these

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countries to be able to deliver better technical assistance and

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support the election administrations and deliver safe elections.

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Safe elections are the key.

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We've been hearing that all over the world.

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What is the attitude been like on the ground?

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They did research on this question through a pre-election survey where we

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asked voters what their concerns are, and if they would go out and vote.

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Surprisingly, many of them confirmed they have confidence

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in election administration, and indeed they went out and voted.

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This research also pointed to where the potential concerns

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are when it comes to voters.

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And those were primarily around proximity to other individuals

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during election process.

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So our interventions included ensuring that poll workers organize all polling

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stations in a way that ensures distance between both poll workers as they are

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supporting the election day operations, but also the voters as they are waiting

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in line and coming in to cast the ballot.

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And some of those have proven to be challenging because ensuring a proper

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appropriate distance on election day within a, very often, small space of a

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typical polling station was a challenge.

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I understand that COVID has made us all very aware of our

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six feet of personal space.

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Your team has published an analysis of lessons learned, which our listeners

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can find on www.cepps.org/podcast.

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What can you tell our listeners about this?

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We learned that through supporting a number of election administrations, but

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also our own research, including and in the Western world, is that timely

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assessment and preparation is the key to ensure mitigation measures, and

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also compliance with those measures once it's out there is very critical.

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Poll workers often need extensive guidance as to how to arrange safe

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environmental at the polling stations, and training of poll workers is the key.

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Also, having an information channel towards poll workers is very

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important so that they receive the most up-to-date information in

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the days leading to election day.

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Reaching out to voters with information, timely information, but also instructions

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on how to perform their duty on election day once they are at the

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following station was also important.

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And we utilized a number of different communication

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channels to reach out to them.

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Also, when it comes to supporting election administrations, when stationed

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in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we helped them develop an e-learning platform

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with a training module targeting poll workers, where all of those involved in

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the election day administration could take advantage of this new tool to avoid

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face-to-face interactions, and then to also get most up-to-date information

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on how to manage elections under COVID.

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So a mix of a virtual and in-person programming is what it sounds like.

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Yes, we found that providing multiple tools and multiple channels of

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information to provide instructions and information to poll workers, but

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also to voters, is very critical.

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What do you expect next on the horizon for the region?

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Both countries, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, will

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hold national elections in 2022.

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And we are looking forward to utilizing our research, but also lessons

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we all learned together through the election process during 2020.

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We do not know what kind of epidemiological conditions we'll

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have next year, but with timely preparation, which is key in this

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situation, we believe that we can do a lot to mitigate possible consequences.

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Nermin Nisic in Belgrade, thank you so much for being here today.

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Thank you very much.

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Our friends at USAID have been key in making sure COVID-19 vaccines

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get shipped around the world.

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So far, 110 million doses have been sent to almost sixty countries

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to every region of the world and include Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J

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doses, according to the White House.

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While USAID administrator, Samantha Power, was in Ethiopia recently, she

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announced an additional $720 million in funding by USAID under the American

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Rescue Plan Act to help address vaccine delivery and other priorities.

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This includes $445 million for Sub-Saharan Africa to support

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COVID-19 response, vaccine readiness, and urgent humanitarian needs.

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This podcast has been produced by the Consortium for Elections and Political

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Process Strengthening through the Global Elections and Political Transitions

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Award, and is made possible by the generous support of the American

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people through the United States Agency for International Development.

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Opinions expressed here are those of the hosts and the guests,

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and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the U.S.

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Government, and is produced by Evo Terra and Simpler Media.

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For more information on Democracy!

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The Podcast, and to access the complete archives, please

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