Legal Initiatives to Battle COVID-19 in Trinidad and Tobago

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 9

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Weekly  Covid-19 Epidemiological update of September 21st, Trinidad and Tobago is classified as having community transmission of the disease. Immediately, the first question begging askance, is what exactly does this mean? 

Community transmission as it relates to Covid-19 has been defined by the WHO as the occurrence of “experiencing larger outbreaks of local transmission defined through an assessment of factors including, but not limited to: large numbers of cases not linkable to transmission chains; large numbers of cases from sentinel laboratory surveillance; and/or multiple unrelated clusters in several areas of the country/territory/area”. In lay man terms, community spread occurs where large numbers of people in a country/nation have gotten the contagious disease, and health personnel are not sure as to how they have become infected. 

Moreover, since the declaration of COVID-19 as being a pandemic by WHO on March 11th, 2020 and its arrival on our shores on March 12th Trinidad and March 23rd Tobago, the twin island Republican state of Trinidad and Tobago, has experienced the gamut of the transmission types over the past six (6) months (see WHO Situation Report No.54 to the Weekly Epidemiological COVID-19 Update reported on the 21st of September 2020).

Nonetheless, since the start of the year 2020, the government of Trinidad and Tobago has been monitoring the Coronavirus disease worldwide, preparing national transport and health sectors, and taking policy decisions to offset the virus’ arrival. These initiatives  initially included restricting access to its shores to non-nationals, from countries such as  China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Singapore, France, Japan etc. There were also calls by the officialdom for citizens to not to engage in any non-essential foreign travel, and locally for citizens to not to gather in mass.

However, when COVID-19 came to our shores, the state recognized that in addition to moral suasion; they also need to advocate for social distancing, the implementation of general stay at home orders for the student population, stay at home or work from home orders for non-essential workers, closure of borders, very limited opening hours for businesses like hard-wares, pharmacies, bars and groceries as well as other domestic measures and national policy decisions. The teeth of the law was still needed to compel citizens to stop certain legitimate but now very risky every day behaviours like shopping/gathering in masse, and reinforce new life saving habits like the wearing of masks

Consequently, “The Public Health Ordinance, Chapter 12 No.4 of the Laws of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago” specifically sections 103 and 105 was utilized by the State to respectively legally declare the COVID-19 as an infectious disease as well as to harness its power to make regulations to deal with this infectious disease control. The Quarantine Act, Chapter 28:05 also gives the state additional powers in the situation where there is the possibility of an infectious disease spreading from ships or aircraft or persons or things therein, arriving from any place. Further, this legislation has been upgraded to respond to the COVID-19  resulting in persons who fail to comply with the amended quarantine regulations and have been convicted, can now face a fine of $50,000 and six  (6) months imprisonment . 

The enacted guiding legislation emanating from the Public Health Ordinance Chapter 12  and Quarantine Act 28:05 took the form of a body of regulations encapsulated in the following: 

Legal Notice No. 17 of 2020 Legal Notice No. 81 of 2020
Legal Notice No. 308 of 2020 (mandatory wearing of face masks)Legal Notice No. 274 of 2020
Legal Notice No. 90 of 2020 Legal Notice No. 291 of 2020
Legal Notice No. 292 of 2020 Legal Notice No. 255 of 2020
Legal Notice No. 98 of 2020 Legal Notice No.108 of 2020
Legal Notice No. 93 of 2020Legal Notice No. 35 of 2020 (amended quarantine regulations)

The descriptive evidence just provided has shown that the laws of the land have been used by the state to aid the national health sector in its attempt to contain the spread of the COVID-19 as well as reinforce new “normal” behaviours. However, there are also instances where legislation or “quasi-legislation” have been put forward to protect the welfare of the citizenry in another milieu: labour. The government perhaps controversially or not, has attempted to create a special type of leave “pandemic leave” to protect the worker’s right to maintain his job even in these unprecedented and tumultuous COVID-19 times.  However, it seems to be a very imperfect and clumsy piece of regulation/pseudo legislation. It is reported to support the hue and cry of the government of the day as well as that of the international community to protect the rights of labour and to help them keep their employment. 

Finally, I must touch on the matter of the implementation of the laws/regulations, designed to protect the citizenry from the COVID-19 virus, which has brought two powerful public figures, the Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith at odds with one another. The constitutional rights of citizens are not ones to be taken lightly in Trinidad and Tobago or in any other sovereign state, even in the presence of a pandemic such as COVID-19. In summary there was a very public disagreement between the Prime Minister and the Commissioner of Police regarding the police’s failure to enforce the Covid-19 Public Health Regulations in a “seeming” private place. The Prime Minister was of the view that the existing rules was sufficient while Griffith argued that they would be violating a person’s constitutional rights if they invaded private property without a warrant simply to enforce these regulations. It seems that the legal luminaries of today, tended to agree that the jurisdiction of the police to enforce the Public Health Ordinance COVID-19 regulations was legally curtailed in a private space, yet ethically they believed that such enforcement should happen, and that the Prime Minister should simply go to Parliament to amend the relevant law(s). The populace awaits to see if the legislation will be amended to reflect the change needed; so that the COVID-19 regulations would have more “legal teeth” and the police service would have the power to enforce these regulations on private property.

In the end, it is hoped that this snapshot of the legislative initiatives implemented by the state of Trinidad and Tobago to fight back against COVID-19, will provide knowledge and insight to one and all about the wide gamut of decisions and changes needed by small island states like us to effectively be on top of this pandemic. In short, we are effectively being “tun-up” by the COVID-19 virus and it is hoped that the legislature is robust enough to adapt and take a hit when needed.

By Jasmin Raymond, Librarian, Industrial Court of Trinidad and Tobago

 

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