Trends around the world suggest that the coronavirus threat is going to get worse in Guyana before it gets better. There can be some comfort in the fact that no new cases have been confirmed in one week.
But, as we now know from other countries, this does not mean that the virus is not spreading within society. The virus can spread without people knowing it. The country therefore has to take measures to protect itself, but these measures must be lawful.
The coronavirus pandemic is being compounded by the country’s political crisis. A new government has not been sworn-in 3 weeks after the elections. None is likely to be sworn-in within the next months.
This political crisis is not good for the country. Already, civil liberties are under threat, and there are signs of increasing arbitrary rule. These are more dangerous than the threats posed by the coronavirus. When human rights violations take root in a society, their effects last for generations, unlike a pandemic which can dissipate within a year or two.
Citizens are duly concerned about getting sick, but they should also be concerned about living in a sick state, on which arbitrary rule has a foothold. This is the surest path to dictatorship.
The Linden municipality has ordered a curfew in the town. We are told that this involves the closing of businesses at designated times. But it also involves restrictions on persons being on the roadways after 8 pm at nights. Also, the curfew is reportedly extended outside of the boundaries of the town.
These measures, while they may enjoy public support, should be within the ambit of the law. Municipal by-laws allow for the regulation of the opening and closing business hours, but by no stretch do municipalities have powers to restrict freedom of movement nor do their powers extend beyond the boundaries of their towns to encompass entire regions.
The Regional Democratic Councils were dissolved on 31st December 2019. The President of Guyana issued a proclamation, effective that date, which brought an end to the life of these organs. As such, there is no Regional Democratic Council from which powers of curfew can be extended throughout any Region.
A lot of persons are watching public television and may be seeing the measures being adopted by states within the United States of America. That country has a federal system in which great powers reside with governors. The same does not apply here, and the assumption that municipalities have the legal right to impose restrictions on the movement of persons is misplaced.
Of even more concern is that the police are being asked to take steps to enforce certain measures, such as the closing of bars, and to stop, search and arrest persons who do not comply with social distancing directives.
There has been no reaction from the police top-brass to these suggestions, but it too ought to know that the force’s powers are circumscribed by the law, and those who are asking them to take certain actions must point to the legal source of such instructions, otherwise the police can be accused of acting ultra vires of the law.
If the Public Health Ordinance – which deals primarily with sanitation – gives such license for all of these measures, then measures restricting the movement and assembly of persons must be made by the Minister of Public Health and not by the municipalities.
Concerns about the threats posed by the spread of the coronavirus are justifiable, but the rule of law must be respected. The measures which are being implemented must be done under the law.
The Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) has not yet denied reports in the media which indicate that it has waived import taxes on supplies to fight the coronavirus, but one must ask whether the GRA has such powers under the law.
The GRA is a tax administration department. It cannot usurp the powers of the Minister of Finance and waive taxes. So it must state under what authority it has waived these taxes.
The coronavirus will eventually disappear. It will leave in its wake huge losses in human life and to the economy. But all of that is insignificant when compared to the economic, social and human costs associated with the arbitrary exercise of authority.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper)
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