Is the treatment worse than the disease?


This is the question that so many people are asking themselves — from workers, their unions, observers and analysts of the local scene, and other concerned stakeholders – in the wake of the adoption of the Covid-19 and the Quarantine Bills, as well as the stringent provisions brought in the Public Health Act.

The irony is that the authorities themselves had pointed out the possibility of massive loss of jobs, and instead of enhancing job security, these laws may make the workers even more vulnerable by, among others, setting up a Redundancy Board, which will examine mostly downsizing applications from employers. And leave a person with nothing more than 30 days of pay, which is totally unfair.

Don’t the deciders realise that they are likely to generate such severe hardship that it is going to lead to the poverty of thousands of families, over and above what already exists? After all, these workers have families to feed, expenses to meet for children’s education and upbringing, bills to pay, loans to reimburse, and other incidental expenses that make for living in a decent and civilized manner. That is what people aspire to in a democratic society, especially the contemporary one where so many developments are taking place and aggressive marketing puts pressure on people to consume excessively.

As always, it is the people at the bottom rungs of the ladder that are going to be affected most, the low income groups, daily wage earners and the self-employed among others. In contrast, no corresponding sacrifice has been imposed on the governing elites and their corporate allies, who will continue to enjoy all the perks and benefits of their positions.

It will be hard for the Government to counter the criticism that Covid-19 has been used as a pretext to enact legislation that has nothing to do with the sanitary emergency. We are not aware of any other country that has passed such stringent laws in the context of the pandemic, or laws that allow them to freely dig into the coffers of the State, when there may well be other alternative financial instruments that could have been used to cope with the situation.

On the other hand, according to the figures being released officially, we seem to be winning the battle over the spread of the epidemic, since there have not been any new cases registered over the past three weeks. The legislations enacted are in contradiction to this official success story, which gives rise to doubt about the real motives behind them. If those who have a job and a work access permit are allowed to shuttle between their homes and their places of work, what happens to people who have lost their jobs? How will they move about to seek a job or to respond to any call if perchance they receive an offer and need to attend for an informal interview to discuss terms and conditions? As it is, they will be short of money. If on top of that they have to face fines and the possible imprisonment if stopped by the police, and bureaucratic hassles to boot, who will step in to help them, since only those with access permits are allowed to move about?

These are some of the realities that have probably not been thought through and that are likely to generate a lot of physical, mental and psychological stress in the people concerned. Inevitably, this will impact their families who are already under pressure from the lockdown that has already been associated with a surge in domestic violence and other scourges.

There will have to be a reasonable period agreed after the lifting of lockdown, say 14 days, during which the evolution of the pandemic locally will be observed. If no further cases are detected during this period, surely these newly enacted provisions in the law will become superfluous, and they should be then seriously considered for rescinding. Let us hope that the unions and other stakeholders will also then take up the issue, with robust backing from lawyers who will be prepared to defend the cause of workers in a spirit of patriotism.

* Published in print edition on 19 May 2020

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