Covid-19 & Quarantine Bills: Legal Overkill

Matters of the Moment

Harsher benchmarks of punishment seem to be a driving mantra and an all-encompassing panacea. There is patently a Père Fouettard mindset and approach

By Mrinal Roy

After some eight weeks of lockdown in the country, no new cases of Covid-19 infection have been detected during more than a fortnight. The last two remaining active cases of Covid-19 have now recovered. It is however imperative that we continue as a nation to remain vigilant, wear masks and strictly abide by social distancing and hygiene rules in force during the lockdown so as to stem the risk of any undetected carriers of the virus in our midst from triggering a new surge of infection, as has been the case in other countries. It is only through strict discipline in abiding by these cardinal rules in force to prevent person to person contact that we can sever and break the chain of infection of the virus in order to stamp out and eliminate Covid-19 from the island. This will open the way towards carefully starting the process of gradually and judiciously rebooting the economy.

Against such a backdrop, some of the provisions of the Covid-19 (Miscellaneous provisions) Bill tabled by government this week seem patently out of step with the status of Covid-19 in the country and smacks of overkill. While some of the amendments proposed formalise many of the stopgap measures and waivers adopted to adapt to the lockdown enforced in the country, some of the heavy-handed penalties proposed in the Bill conjure the image of a sledgehammer being used to swat a fly. This is neither efficient nor meets the objective test of reasonableness.

Harsher benchmarks of punishment seem to be a driving mantra and an all-encompassing panacea. For example, under the proposed amendments to the Public Health Act, any person who contravenes sanitary measures ‘for the prevention or mitigation of any epidemic shall be liable to a fine not exceeding 200,000 rupees and to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years’. Similarly, although the definitions of the array of offences in the new Quarantine Bill are too broad-brush and open-ended, they are all liable to a standard heavy-handed and clobbering fine not exceeding 500,000 rupees and to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years! There is patently a Père Fouettard mindset and approach.

In contrast, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has this week proposed to hike fines for breaching coronavirus regulations from £60 to £100 for first offenders under the lockdown easing plans announced by him. Payment of the fixed penalty notice within 14 days will reduce the sum to £50 whereas the maximum for repeat offenders will more than triple from £960 to £3,200 (about Rs 156,000). Penalties imposed on people who do not strictly abide by sanitary measures enforced during the Covid-19 pandemic or quarantine rules should act as a deterrent. They cannot be based on extreme cases. They should certainly not mete out excessive and disproportionate punishment.

Burning questions

The tough line taken by government in drafting the Covid-19 and quarantine bills begs so many burning questions. Shouldn’t such fundamental bills which relate to the exceptional situation of a world pandemic and encompass such a broad spectrum of laws be discussed and agreed through bipartisan support by consensus not only by all MPs but also by the civil society at large? Shouldn’t the bills also include beefed up health and safety benchmarks and the provision for protective gear as required at the place of work and while commuting to work to ensure that the health and safety of all employees during the Covid-19 pandemic is fully safeguarded at all times?

Rebooting the economy also means robustly protecting and continuously assuring the health and safety of all employees. The trade unions, which are normally quite vocal, seem to be disconcertingly silent on such a crucial issue. In contrast, why has government not demonstrated the same toughness, determination and alacrity to propose the significantly harsher laws required to quash the evil of drug trafficking in the country in the wake of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on Drug Trafficking submitted since October 2018?

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Mixed bag

As an export-oriented country, Mauritius is highly dependent on the state of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy in countries which are our principal trading partners and markets. The Covid-19 and economic situation in the EU, UK, the US, India, China and the regional markets is a mixed bag. Every country seems to be adopting its own strategy to fight and contain the virus using its own mix of the same ingredients such as a total lockdown, confinement of people in their homes, social distancing and hygiene norms, used by countries across the world. Demand to sustain our export sector will therefore depend on the state of revival of these economies. This will only happen when the spread of Covid-19 in these countries is strictly contained. The domestic market cannot sustain the economy.

Countries that had already opened up are closing down again after renewed spikes in infections. South Korea which is regarded as one of the world’s success stories in its battle against Covid-19 has had to reverse its decision to open bars and clubs after a spike in new cases. In Wuhan, in China, considered as the epicentre of the pandemic, the detection of new cases of infection, five weeks after the city had claimed to be Covid-19 free, has caused the authorities to order the testing of all 11 million residents of Wuhan.

The timing of when to ease restrictions and start a step by step opening of the economy is therefore crucial. It must be determined by an honest and comprehensive appraisal of the robust state of containment of the virus in the country and the safety of the people.

No to adventurism

There is however impatience by some leaders bent on opening the economy in the teeth of the ground reality of Covid-19 infection in their countries. In a context where President Donald Trump is impatient to get the economy going again, Dr Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House’s coronavirus task force and top infectious disease expert warned a Republican-led US Senate hearing this week that Americans would experience “suffering and death that could be avoided,” in addition to further economic damage, if US states ease restrictions and reopen the economy too soon.’

Despite a rising Covid-19 death toll which has exceeded that of China and a large number of undetected cases which could be 12 to 15 times higher, owing to the lack of testing availability in a country of 210 million people, Brazilian President Bolsanaro is pushing for economic activity to restart. He is at loggerheads with the state governors who have imposed restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

Not all countries are therefore judiciously arbitrating the fundamental question of choosing to save lives as opposed to the economy. In this moment of world crisis, it is important that the world reaffirms with one voice that people are not expendable and cannot serve as cannon fodder.

The mixed signals and messages coming from countries across the world depict an appalling state of affairs. More than ever before, the world needs to set up an international forum to share information, findings and experience of epidemiologists and health professionals treating infected patients and battling against Covid-19 in hospitals across the world. We are still learning about the virus. This platform should also facilitate the supply of protective gear and medicine for treatment of infected patients as well as muster with the help of international financial institutions the resources required to help rehabilitate the world economy post Covid-19. More than ever in the chequered history of the world, we need to unite and stand together to defeat this deadly virus and manage our common future.

* Published in print edition on 15 May 2020

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