Emergency powers and mixed messages

The uneven application of emergency orders put in place over the last six months and the mixed signals sent by the competent authority and other government officials in their response to the pandemic have led to an erosion of trust in public officials and have ultimately slowed The Bahamas’ success in battling COVID-19.

We have seen this play out repeatedly. While some are made to adhere to the provisions in the orders, others are able to operate outside those orders.

Earlier in the week, Minister of Health Renward Wells said at a press conference that due to necessary restrictions put in place as it pertains to funerals, some members of the public are opting to wait until restrictions have been lessened to collect the bodies of their loved ones, thus causing an overcrowding at the morgue at Princess Margaret Hospital.

The latest order states that funerals on New Providence and certain other islands may be held provided that they are held at the graveside and each funeral may have no more than 10 people, exclusive of the officiant and mortuary workers.

Yesterday, the Royal Bahamas Police Force carried live on its Facebook page the funeral of a policewoman, who was laid to rest at Woodlawn Gardens. Scores of people, including government minister Frankie Campbell, were in attendance. The police band played and a praise team was present.

The deceased was given a dignified send off as she deserved. However, the message the police sent to the general public is that not all are required to adhere to the provision as it relates to funerals.

The Office of the Prime Minister said yesterday it gave no approval for any funerals to be held outside of the guidelines of the latest emergency order. 

While some families are likely not collecting loved ones for financial reasons, more would undoubtedly do so if they are not made to choose which 10 will attend the funeral.

The wider message sent was that not all provisions of the emergency orders must be adhered to by all.

This is why many in the public reacted with anger when it was revealed that there was a big wedding on Harbour Island in July even though the competent authority had banned such events and ordered everyone except non-essential workers to remain home that weekend.

Police tried to do public relations by telling the media that they plan to bring charges in relation to the violation of social distancing protocols at that wedding, but we have heard nothing from the police on the matter since they made the claim on July 27.

Over the last six months, police have arrested and taken to court hundreds of people, mostly young men, for infractions of the emergency orders, primarily curfew violations.

Yesterday’s police funeral at Woodlawn Gardens came a day after Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis told Parliament he was concerned about large gatherings that are still taking place and he asked Bahamians “if they can at least remain compliant just at least until the end of this particular month by wearing facial masks and trying to resist from such social gatherings”.

Minnis was speaking in the House a day after a parliamentary staff member, who came in contact with members of Parliament a week prior, tested positive for COVID-19. 

The opposition decided against attending the House on Wednesday. After all, Minnis and health authorities have been telling people to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19-positive individuals. 

On the issue of mixed messages, the government’s information agency this week sent out photos of Governor General C. A. Smith visiting a centenarian, even as Bahamians are being told to stay away from visiting elderly family members at this time.

In Parliament on Wednesday, the competent authority gave notice of the intention to extend the state of emergency to October 31, but he asked the public to “just make three weeks of sacrifice by utilizing the masks”.

Is Minnis telling the public that masks would no longer be necessary after October 7? And if only three more weeks of sacrifice are needed, then why does he need emergency powers for another six weeks?

Incidentally, today makes six months since the governor general declared a state of emergency. The constitution provides for the extension of the emergency proclamation for a period “not exceeding six months”. 

It is an affront to the constitution that the government in June secured a fresh proclamation from the governor general, thereby allowing the competent authority’s power trip to extend if he so chooses all the way to the end of the year.

He is free to toy further with our civil liberties and to impose orders, the provisions of which are unlikely to be applied equally.

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