The coronavirus threatens our existence. Guyana is too poor, too small and with a too undeveloped health system to withstand a local coronavirus epidemic.
Those in the developed world, with stronger health systems, who did not take the outbreak seriously are ruing their decision today. Those who assumed that this virus was less deadly than the seasonal influenza are regretting this supposition.
As this is being written, the death toll globally is more than 13,000. More than 300,000 persons have been infected.
The virus is not discriminating according to level of national development. Countries, both rich and poor, have been affected. People are dying in Italy like flies. Last Saturday alone almost 800 Italians died. A total of 4,825 Italians have succumbed to this virus over the past few weeks.
There is a serious crisis and there are serious questions surrounding the local response. The government has moved to implement draconian measures, the legal foundation of which raises a number of concerns.
The government has reverted to Guyana’s oldest law, the Public Health Ordinance – an archaic colonial law which was omitted from Guyana’s legal system in 1972 but which is allowed to remain effective by virtue of a special provision in the Law Revision Act which allows for omitted laws to be valid, notwithstanding their omission.
The Public Health Ordinance of British Guiana deals primarily with sanitation matters. Remarkably, it has now become the principal legal instrument to combat the coronavirus threat.
In an extraordinary act, the President issued a Direction under the said Public Health Ordinance Cap. 145), which was published as a Legal Supplement in an Extraordinary Gazette of March 16, 2020. The Direction represents a case of overkill. It directs the Minister of Health to take measures to do a number of things. These include speedily bury the dead, remove, disinfect and destroy the personal effects, goods, buildings and any other material or anything exposed to infection from the disease. Assumingly, this latter measure could possibly include aircraft, motor vehicles and people’s homes.
The Direction made under the Public Health Ordinance goes beyond directing the Health Ministry. It also directs the Minister of Education, Minister of Finance and Minister of Citizenship. This must be one of the most powerful Direction ever issued.
Serious times call for serious action but medical professionals have begun to question some of the strategies employed by the Ministry of Public Health. On March 20, a letter written by unnamed medical professionals was published in the Stabroek News. The letter, while praising some of the early actions taken by the public health authorities in response to the COVID 19 threat, raised some concerns about government’s response.
The medical professionals noted that at present, there are only 2 ventilators in the public system and efforts are being made to procure a further 12. Why then is the government moving to mandatory quarantining persons at four locations for suspected cases and confirmed cases? This makes no sense since the resources are not there to deal with the critical cases.
The medical professionals also indicated that there will not be sufficient beds should there be a major outbreak and thus the strategy of doing away with self-isolation is unmeritorious. The medical professionals sensibly recommended that only cases, which require supportive care not available at home should be admitted to hospitals.
The move to do away with self-isolation is certainly one which is bound to fail if there is widespread outbreak. In as much as one understands the rationale, for the Ministry opting for such a measure, it must be questioned whether this measure will be practical if the number of infections increase.
The Ministry of course is only insisting on mandatory quarantining because of the experience of persons not adhering to the restrictions imposed. The medical professionals however pointed to India where indelible ink, such as that employed during elections, is used to identify persons who should be self-isolating.
The directive to disinfect and destroy personal effects, goods and private property infected was a source of derision. The medical professionals correctly pointed out that an inanimate object cannot be infected and that it is known that the virus only survives for a certain period on inanimate objects, thereby rendering destruction unnecessary.
In light of these concerns over the Direction, it must be asked whether there were consultations both with legal and medical professionals before it was signed by the President. Did the Ministerial Task Force, appointed by the President, approve of these draconian and unnecessary directives?
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