Fighting COVID-19 with the Heavy Hand of the Law

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LAST week I described returning to Trinidad from the United States amid the COVID-19 crisis.

I may be one of the 20,000, a frightful label used to refer to the nationals who returned home from abroad within the last two weeks or so. (The Minister of Health gave the actual figure as 19,852 or 0.015% of the population of Trinidad and Tobago).

It’s frightful because much of the blame for the COVID-19 spread in our country is being attributed to those of us who refuse to obey the government’s pleadings to self-quarantine at home for 14 days.

Upon landing at the Piarco International Airport on March 19, a small handheld machine was pointed at my forehead (to check my body temperature for fever, a classic sign of the novel corona virus). I was asked whether I had travelled to Europe before coming home. That summed up my coronavirus screening.

I had expected that every passenger on my flight would have been individually questioned at length about our recent travel history, particulars taken of our address and contact information and most importantly, a specific directive given to us that we were to voluntarily self-quarantine at home for 14 days or face forced quarantining and being penalised under the Quarantine Act with a fine and imprisonment. I’m going to refer to this as a “thorough screening.” But that did not happen to me.

I understand from speaking with colleagues, that some returning nationals received a thorough screening. The conclusion: an inconsistent approach by the State towards returning nationals.

But why, you may wonder, is thorough screening important? Let me ask you this: can you be charged for breaching an order that wasn’t given to you? The answer is fairly obvious, no. That’s why I expected someone to have specifically ordered me to stay at home under self-quarantine. Without that teeth (the order to stay at home), how could I be penalised under the Quarantine Act if I had refused to stay home?

Today is Day 11 of my voluntary self-quarantine. By now, we all would have heard about a prominent local media personality having contracted the dreaded COVID-19 virus, but who went about life as normal, totally disregarding the government’s pleas to self-quarantine. A groundswell of public outrage emerged over fears that he may have spread the virus to many citizens. Answers were demanded about what action was going to be taken to penalise this person. I do not know if any directive was issued to this individual upon his return home to self-quarantine. If not, any attempt to prosecute him for failure to abide by a quarantine order would be quite interesting indeed.

Since my self-quarantine began, the government passed a slew of laws in its fight against the spread of this horrid virus. Amongst them, bars and clubs have been ordered closed, and as of midnight yesterday, all non-essential persons are to stay at home until April 15. The penalty for disobedience: fines of up to $50,000 and six months in jail.

Is a heavy hand of the law really necessary? I would argue, a resounding YES!

As I understand it, there is no cure, no readily available treatment and no vaccine against COVID-19. Scientists are racing to learn as much as they can about the virus: how it spreads, why it’s more contagious than the common flu etc. But much of the virus is still a mystery, including possible long-term damage on the human body. Many people will contract COVID-19, but the vast majority will have mild symptoms and can successfully recover at home. Many people will have the virus, recover and not know! This is largely due to a gross worldwide shortage of tests for the virus.

The crucial problem with these mild cases, is this: if you do not self-isolate at home, you can spread the virus to many more, and some of these persons, such as the elderly, may get severe symptoms and die. If the spread is too fast, our hospitals get overwhelmed. They cannot treat everybody. Some people who could have been saved, will die. This is not fiction; it is happening in places such as Italy right now.

Democracy and free movement are pinnacles of our way of life. Today however, we are faced with a new and deadly disease. The State, as I see it, is walking a wildly swinging tightrope trying to balance our lawful freedoms against the monster that is COVID-19. Whether or not they get the recipe right, time will tell.

In any event, whatever the current laws say, it is our moral duty as citizens of this land to throw our full support against the spread of this virus. Do not make things harder for our health system. Put aside all differences, politics and partisan interests. Stay home. And educate yourself about this virus.

We are in this together. And together we will overcome COVID-19!

© Neela Ramsundar, LL.B (HONS), L.E.C is a Civil Litigation Attorney at Law & Certified Mediator

Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general informative purposes only. It does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. For legal advice on your specific situation, please contact an Attorney-at-Law of your choosing directly. Liability for any loss or damage of any kind whatsoever allegedly incurred a consequence of using content in this article is thus hereby excluded to the fullest extent permitted by law.


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