COVID-19: the president’s responsibilities vis-a-vis rights of citizens

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Coronavirus disease or COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a new virus.  It has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), with a call on all governments to tackle it with utmost seriousness.

Governments across the world have taken and continue to take various public safety measures to help contain the virus. Some of such measures include protocols on social distancing, maintaining strict hygiene standards such as washing hands regularly, use of alcohol-based sanitisers as frequently as possible, avoiding crowded places, covering your mouth and nose with bent elbow when sneezing; and last but not least, staying at home as much as possible unless it is unavoidable.

In addition, scientists and medical researchers are working around the clock to come up with vaccines and case management treatments.  Medical staff are also doing their best with case management of patients. Everyone, one way or another, is concerned and doing something positive to curb this menace.

The measures undertaken by governments to help contain the disease have been challenged by sections of society as impinging on the rights of citizens the world over.

Some of these measures include self-isolation and quarantine, which here in Ghana are catered for under the Public Health Act 2012(Act 851).  Other steps include contact-tracing, which involves tracing everyone who has come into contact or is suspected to have come into contact with persons diagnosed as being infected with the COVID-19 disease.

The government of Ghana has adopted several measures to curb spread of the disease nationwide. The president has issued directives for closure of our borders and a partial lockdown in the Greater Accra and Ashanti Regions. Our Parliament has passed the Imposition of Restrictions Act 2020 (Act 1012) to give further effect to these directives issued by the President.

All these powers are derived from the 1992 Constitution, which is unequivocal on the imposition of restrictions on rights and freedoms in the interest of defence, public safety, public order and public health.

Due to the focus of educational campaigns on the protocols mentioned earlier, there is some stigma associated with being infected with the COVID-19 disease – therefore, infected persons are shying away and not voluntarily offering themselves for testing, contact-tracing and treatment.  The president has therefore had to issue ‘The Establishment of Emergency Communications Systems Instrument 202, (Executive Instrument 63)’ as a means of using our communication systems to trace all persons who have come into contact with persons infected and diagnosed as having the COVID 19 disease.

The crux of the matter is: what do these laws, regulations and directives seek to achieve?

Historically, whether in politics or religion, persons have at some point had to relinquish some of their rights to a higher authority in an effort to tackle a pressing issue or to resolve a peculiar problem that has arisen in society. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 is a serious attack on public health and safety, and this disease does not distinguish which class of people to infect – prime ministers, world leaders, film stars and footballers have all fallen to the COVID-19 disease.

We can liken the current situation to surveillance cameras installed in our offices and homes: yes, they are intrusive; however, this concern for privacy is overridden by the very purpose and function for which the surveillance camera is installed – which is to capture and expose the nefarious activities of intruders, offenders and criminals.

It can further be likened to the situation of an ill patient whose survival depends on a surgical operation being undertaken on his body by a medical team. This patient’s main consideration would and should be his survival, and not exposure of his nakedness to the medical team.

This Executive Instrument (63) has been triggered in this crisis situation, which is the COVID-19 pandemic, and one that is extremely urgent. The issue of proportionality comes into question; the question is whether these restrictive measures being taken by government are proportional to the current crisis at hand?

The answer is yes. As can be seen from Wuhan, China – the main initial epicentre of the virus – the Chinese government left no stone unturned in instituting measures, including restrictive ones such as a total lockdown of Wuhan, imposition of fines and imprisonment for offenders of these new restrictive measures.  In fact, Wuhan was in this lockdown for 77 days. The results can be seen now. Today, China is back on its feet as against those European countries and the United States of America which have been reluctant to fully implement such restrictive measures in their countries.

With our limping public health sector and highly under-developed housing structure in Ghana – whereby we still live in largely communal set-ups, use public washrooms/restrooms, overcrowd most average families into single rooms – and the large influx of migrants from the north to south of Ghana and from neighbouring West African nations into the country, these measures have proven to curtail spread of the COVID-19 disease in Ghana.

The Ghana Health Service confirmed a total of 313 positive cases with 6 deaths as at April 7, 2020. Out of a total of 1030 travellers who arrived in the county between March 21-22, 2020 and were mandatorily quarantined, 105 (10.2 percent) tested positive after initial and subsequent testing. With respect to enhanced contact tracing and testing, 37 (0.34 percent) out of a total of 11,016 samples were confirmed positive as at April 7, 2020.

These confirmed cases were detected through the mandatory quarantine and enhanced surveillance activities, which proves that the current measures adopted are yielding results and proving effective in helping curb spread of the COVID-19 disease.

>>>The author is the Managing Partner of KEDE Law, a private legal firm in Accra. She holds an Executive MBA in Finance from the University of Ghana, Business School.  She is a lawyer by profession, with expertise in corporate, commercial and banking law. She obtained her LLB from the University of Southampton, UK; and then proceeded to the Ghana School of Law for her practicing licence. She also holds a BA (Hons) in Political Science from the University of Ghana

 

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