Since Wednesday 13 May two important bills are being debated in the National Assembly. They are the Covid-19 (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill and the Quarantine Bill (No. II of 2020). Both these bills have proved to be necessary in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic caused by a very highly infectious coronavirus, and which has swept the world with such rapidity that it has overwhelmed the health systems of even the most developed countries.
This is why countries have had to adopt the lockdown strategy which, combined with the sanitary measures recommended by WHO and other competent authorities, is meant to control the spread of the disease. Unfortunately, knowledge about it and its treatment and prevention is still evolving, which means that there is much that is unknown and this leads to uncertainties about overall management of the situation, including the serious social and economic impacts it is causing.
Hence the need for legislation to support more effectively the health containment measures that have been put in place, as well as to ensure the resumption of economic and other social activities that had come to a virtual standstill. That means that there will be more movement of people and goods using both public and private means of transport, and this calls for setting the legal parameters within which this opening up in stages will operate.
These bills bring fundamental amendments to a broad swathe of existing legislations. There doesn’t seem to have been any prior consultations with the several stakeholders whose constituencies will be affected by the new provisions. Understandably, therefore, many apprehensions have been expressed across the board from members of the Opposition, civil society organizations, observers and analysts about various aspects of the bills.
Some of the main fears concern the provisions related to the Bank of Mauritius, Workers’ Rights, and the Quarantine. Those about the BOM are so sweeping, coming as they do in the wake of the Air Mauritius and SBM debacles, that they raise genuine fears about the functioning and fate of this most important institution in the country, since it appears that the State is appropriating to itself the right to extract from the BOM’s reserves without any limit whatsoever.
A different order of concerns applies to Workers’ Rights, which are being equally drastically curtailed, such that the workers are at great risk of losing their jobs through being made redundant, but also their other benefits and acquired rights which have been so arduously fought for. The irony is that at a time when even the Finance Minister has estimated that nearly 100,000 jobs are likely to be lost, instead of providing security to the workers, the bill is heavily skewed in favour of the employers, on top of the wage assistance support that they are already benefiting by.
Particularly worrying in the Quarantine Bill is Clause 11, Police Powers, wherein ‘A police officer under (b) may (ii) enter premises without a warrant (iii) arrest, without a warrant, a person whom he has reasonable cause to believe has committed an offence… (highlights added). There have too many reported cases of the high-handed methods of the police that they raise a real cause for heightened alarm at this provision, justification for which is very hard to find in a sanitary context, however serious.
It is pertinent to note here that according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘International human rights law lays down obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups’ (italics added). In our view, entering or arresting without a warrant falls in the category of acts that must be refrained from in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The crucial issue is that the sanitary context must not be used as pretext or justification to bring about legislation that can appear coercive, repressive and in violation of the rights of individuals or groups. As it is, we have been placed on the black list of the European Union as regards the financial front. Do we want to compromise our international image further by perpetrating human rights abuses? It is something that must be seriously pondered as these bills are being debated.
* Published in print edition on 15 May 2020