The acronym “SOE” seems to no longer mean State of Emergency, but it apparently means “Selective Owners Exempted”! While I am being facetious, it is not without basis, since it appears that, under our State of Emergency regulations, as stated in Statutory Instrument No. 46 of 2020, the meaning of what is essential was seemingly bent and broken to allow certain, specific businesses to continue to generate revenue while we cope with the threats of COVID-19.
I know that the political parties need the campaign financing from the big businesses, and thus my input may be of no significance, as I am not a political financier, and on top of that, I am an advocate for campaign financing legislation to stem the influence of big money in our elections.
However, in a time of crisis, I wish the joint press conference showcasing the Prime Minister along with the Leader of the Opposition could be less about the optics and more about the interest of the masses first, over the interest of the financiers. And I call both men out, since both have given their blessings to aspects of the Statutory Instrument that I will discuss now. It therefore means, in my opinion, based on the final draft, that both had to agree that certain business interests would be granted exemption under the Statutory Instrument.
I make this bold statement because the word “essential” has a specific meaning in everyday language and everyday use, and per our understanding, carries a certain connotation of life and death. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “essential” as “the basic things you need to live” and “extremely important or necessary”.
Therefore, on the basis of that definition, it is clear that in the regulations being promulgated by the government, some really, absolutely non-essential services have been included, because we surely do not need them during this state of emergency, to live. Regulation 8 sets out all the businesses that can remain open and their opening hours. However, much to my surprise, “construction and construction sites (private and commercial)” have been included.
The problem with including construction sites is that the collateral services that accompany it must therefore be opened to provide the materials, and it means that all the specialist personnel needed at a construction site, from plumbers to electricians to engineers, need to be present. Now, if government really just wanted to continue its construction projects on the highways, it should have exempted those specifically, instead of casting a wide net to cover all construction sites, be it private or public.
The problem with this is that now it is saying that the hardware stores can be opened, which is now a major problem, because any shop or store that has some hardware items may wish to argue that they are entitled to be opened, as they sell “hardware” items needed at a construction site. It also means that those selling construction materials, from sand, gravel, wood, to blocks, cement etc. etc., will have the same argument, and there the problem lies.
The biggest construction contracts have been issued to no other than the political ally of the government in power, Imer Hernandez, and from my viewpoint, this exemption, which is totally not essential, seems to cater more to a party political agenda than to the agenda of the greater good of all. Now this has other implications, because I have had electricians, plumbers, carpenters, welders, and even installers of windows and doors asking me if they are exempt, since they are needed in the construction industry, as every building must have electrical work done, plumbing laid, windows and doors installed, and cabinets made and the list goes on!
What, then, should be my answer? Are there not sufficient loopholes for them to fit in? And how do the authorities intend to deal with this? Now it seems selective to announce that electricians and plumbers are not essential, yet the truth is that they are needed at any building site, as are the window makers and installers and the cabinetmakers. By including this one non-essential service, an entire Pandora’s Box has been opened. It’s possible that this provision was likely more about money, and less about lives! Prove me wrong!
Drinks and sprits approved
I also can observe the likely influence of business interests on the provisions which allow manufacturers of carbonated and other beverages to operate, including “distributors and factories of carbonated and other beverages, including spirits, (excluding potable water)”.
I must admit, this part caught my attention because one of the major messages being pushed by the health sector is that persons seeking to boost their immune system should avoid alcoholic beverages —”spirits,” as we call them— as they only serve to make you much more susceptible to COVID-19.
Therefore, I cannot comprehend the contradiction in messages here at a time when we seek to prepare our people to fight this deadly coronavirus from all fronts.
We cannot be telling our people to give up alcohol or limit consumption of it, yet give a pass to those who manufacture carbonated beverages, which are not healthy per se, and spirits, while at the same time excluding street food vendors. Clearly, if the street food vendors had financial and political clout, they would have been able to lobby to stay operational, as some “big” businesses probably did.
Sadly, from my vantage point, this impropriety also passed the scrutiny of the Opposition, which forms part of the National Committee, and which therefore failed us. This to me is indicative of the influence of finances across the political parties and the political spectrum. Now I know that some shy away from calling this spade a spade, but I cannot afford to likewise do so, because in this time of crisis and regarding this matter of life and death, there is no time to fear calling out that which goes against the spirit of the State of Emergency. It defies the premise of the shutdown, which, as stated in the Statutory Instrument, is as follows: “for the purpose of preventing, controlling, containing and suppressing the spread of the infectious disease COVID19…”
If that was indeed the purpose, then again it may be an oversight or lack of foresight that has resulted in the lawmakers including in the list of businesses allowed to be opened, as stated at Regulation 8, the following: (b) (iv) hotels, villas and other rental accommodations (b) (ix) mechanic shops, garages and auto parts stores; hardware stores and even the (b) (xiii) the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Centre (and any research undertaken or being done).
I will hope that these are reconsidered, as they truly defeat the purpose of the principles of the shutdown and are sending the wrong message and lack equity, since the argument of the other businesses that are closed will be that if these non-essentials can be opened, these other businesses can likewise be opened and given similar treatment. This is the very ill will that needs to be avoided at a time when every business other than an essential service is asked to please make a sacrifice and stay shut! In order to gain the trust of the people, the government and the National Committee MUST act in a trustworthy way!
It’s a Start!
Having pointed out the outright inconsistency and having been openly critical about the inequity, I will nonetheless still say thank you to the authorities for finally deciding to declare the State of Emergency and for, at a minimum, implementing a curfew and partial shutdown. Looking at the bigger picture, I am hoping that it’s a start and that as we go along and learn from the implementation, that our leaders will be more than amenable to tweaking the regulations to meet the reality of the circumstances.
This is a trial-and-error in some ways, and since there was no time to even consult the wider populace, I pray that the public comments and criticism help them in crafting the changes and that they are not dismissive of the view of the populace. At this time, people are looking at our leaders for fair and equitable treatment, as COVID equalizes all of us and sees no difference between the haves and have-nots.
Now, indeed, it is a start and an opportunity for us to truly isolate and contain this deadly virus that is wreaking havoc in the world and which we want to stop from doing the same here. However, this is only possible with the cooperation of us, the citizens. The government can pass all the laws, rules, and regulations in our best interests, but if we do not do our part to obey, then it is of no use. In addition, there might be steps that are not mandated by law, but which we, in our individual wisdom, can take in order to protect ourselves and in so doing, protect others.
I will not pretend that the social distancing is an easy task, because it is not. It is difficult in our culture, where we are so used to being in close contact, almost in each other’s faces, when interacting with each other. Even more difficult is a lockdown, because we are an outgoing people, with a very vivid and energized nature. Truth is, Belizeans love moving around; we have “puppy-foot,” as we would say in Creole parlance.
So it is a challenge for many of us, myself included. However, we must make an additional effort to really respect the shutdown, and stay at home as much as we can; and let us not stop practicing all the hygiene protocols that we are being advised to follow. The truth is that we must each individually do our part and we must all act responsibly.
I must state categorically, for the record, that while I am openly critical of some aspects of the State of Emergency regulations and I make constructive observations, that in no way means that I do not support any effort being made by the authorities and that I am not fully appreciative of the fact that they have made a critical decision at a critical time, going contrary to their initial stance.
I recognize that a State of Emergency and shutdown of some sort is novel to us, as a State of Emergency is not something that is the norm, and so it is not as if we’ve had sufficient practice to get it all right, but that does not mean that we must not hold our leaders fully accountable and seek equitable and fair treatment.
This is especially needed because, in the context of a State of Emergency, we as citizens are willing to forego some of our constitutional rights and leave it to the state to decide what is best for us all and for the greater good of the society, in the interest of public health and safety, in this instance.
Justice during SOE
The welcomed news is that even in this time of crisis, the judiciary is still open and functioning, even if only in limited cases of emergency. This is critical, because while some rights are suspended, there are some inalienable rights that are never suspended, those being the right to life, free speech and access to justice!
Listed amongst the essential services are the Attorney General’s ministry, the Judiciary, and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. However, I think that, inadvertently, the defence attorneys were not listed, which needs correcting because one right you cannot give up is the right to an attorney and the right to be brought before the court and be represented by an attorney.
In my view, as an attorney, this oversight in no way deters any attorney from being on call to attend sessions of the courts when called upon or to represent a client in need. I am sure this will be corrected.
Likewise, municipal bodies and village councils must be on the list of essential services, as each must be activated to assist in their respective city, towns and villages, just as members of Cabinet and the National Assembly are on call to act in the capacity of their elected or appointed offices. I am sure the regulations will be tweaked as we go along, and that is the right step in this ever dynamic and changing crisis.
Stay safe, my people. Stay safe, Belize!
Feature photo: Audrey Matura