At a virtual press conference held on Friday, caretaker Prime Minister Dean Barrow surprised the nation with the announcement that the National Oversight Committee had decided that persons who have tested positive for COVID-19 and have not completed the mandated quarantine period will not be allowed to vote in the election set for November 11. Two reasons given are that persons who are under quarantine are not allowed to interact with the public, and also that it would likely cause persons who are not infected with the virus to stay away from the polling stations.
We are in uncharted territory, and naturally errors will be made, hopefully always because of an overabundance of caution. We also expect that decisions that are faulty will be improved or reversed, since the risk of faulty results could cause some Belizeans to delay getting tested.
Recently the authorities, through a Statutory Instrument (SI), mandated that a list of the names of all persons who were found to be infected with COVID-19 be turned over to the Minister of National Security. The SI was amended because the DHS, Dr. Manzanero, balked at the directive because he felt that, if the names were released to the Minister, members of the public would be dissuaded from getting tested.
Bluntly, we believe many citizens do not trust the security forces with any of their personal information, because over the years nefarious elements, for personal reasons or in the service of unscrupulous political leaders, have trampled on the rights of citizens with impunity.
We are in a pandemic, and the decision about which persons will lead us to safe ground, and who will resuscitate our economy so that we can take care of the needs of our people and prevent us from falling deeper into debt, is critical. We know how much impact a government can have on our lives, and after we go to the polls the party that wins can hold the reins for five years. Making COVID-19 positive persons ineligible to vote might not affect the outcome of the election, but denying people that right could result in many disgruntled Belizeans for five long years.
There are Belizeans who were abroad, because they were on vacation, or because they were away for schooling or to receive medical treatment or for other wholesome reasons, who were not able to come back to Belize to re-register because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Entry into Belize has been severely restricted since April this year, and while there has been some ease on restrictions for entry by air, since October 1, the land borders remain closed.
Understandably, those Belizeans who were interested in voting and were not able to register because of the movement restrictions are unhappy about losing the franchise for this general election; however, it is not impossible that a window could open for them. In another bit of uncharted territory, there is an intriguing challenge, an injunction filed in the courts to have a redistricting exercise done before the general election is held. While we wait for this matter to be resolved, we have to remark that if the injunction is upheld, it is likely that the general election could be delayed, and this could allow for persons who were unable to register, to do so.
The situation for Belizeans abroad is very different from that of Belizeans who were locked in, not out, because of necessary measures to contain the pandemic. Belizeans at home who are interested in exercising their franchise have already completed all the requirements to vote.
If it is full-speed ahead on November 11, it is important to remember that COVID-19 is not selective; the disease does not favor members of any political party, so if the edict remains, it should not affect the outcome of the election. However, again, this decision cannot sit well with Belizeans who are ready to vote, and we don’t think it is necessary for them to be denied.
The argument that Belizeans will be afraid to go to the polls if COVID-19-positive persons are allowed to vote isn’t hollow, but this strange, dangerous disease is also carried by persons who are asymptomatic, which means that no one has a clean bill of health. When we go to the polls, there will be persons in the line who are COVID-19 positive and don’t know it, so we must treat everyone as though they are infectious.
We hesitate to offer any solutions, because over the years our leaders have shown that they only entertain ideas that emanate from within their own circle, but since providing for voting over a period that extends beyond a day is not original, we humbly ask the authorities to consider that. In a heavily controlled exercise we could allow COVID-19 positive persons to vote on November 10, and those who are not afraid of the reportedly dreaded stigma could go to the polls and make their X.
They could contact the health authorities in their area, and a vehicle owned by the government, maybe with a driver who has recovered from the disease, could pick them up and transport them to their polling area so that they can exercise their franchise. There are well over 100 polling areas in Belize, and if in November we have a thousand positives as we do at this time, and all are adults who are interested in voting, and aren’t afraid of others knowing they have the disease, we would not have more than ten persons voting in any polling area on that day, November 10.
This insistence on privacy if one is COVID-19 positive is interesting. With COVID-19 being as easy to catch as the flu it should by now have lost its stigma. Heck, the Prime Minister of the UK had it. The president of the US had it.
This COVID-19 disease is as pervasive as the influenza, and that means generations will have to live with it, just as people in our part of the world have had to live with malaria, and now have to live with dengue. The reasons why we are to try especially hard to not catch COVID-19 are that it is a very dangerous disease, and our health system does not have the capacity to handle many sick persons.
We must work hard to contain the disease, and sometimes tough decisions have to be made, but Belize is just too small a country for us to not be able to easily arrange for COVID-19 positive persons to vote. We expect that the authorities will revisit this decision to disallow persons who are under quarantine from voting.