When we discuss the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we typically focus on loss of life, and damage to economies, employment, and the education of children worldwide.
What we do not take nearly enough stock of, is the damage responses to the pandemic has caused to democracy, and freedoms inextricably tied to human rights.
Such freedoms include freedom of expression; freedom of movement; protection from arbitrary arrest or detention; and freedom of conscience, which while generally viewed as freedom of religion, specifically refers to one’s freedom to think, and to hold or change one’s viewpoint and beliefs.
From Canada in the Americas to the continents of Europe and Australia, large-scale protests continue against COVID restrictions and mandates, with such protests also having erupted in some Caribbean countries.
The economic and social impact of COVID responses in Latin America, meanwhile, have triggered a cascade of protests and dissent against governments of the day.
As the pandemic raged on, global watchdog groups warned of a rise in authoritarian rule and restrictions on press freedom, as heads of government adopted states of emergency that suspended constitutional rights, and where threats of imprisonment if one’s expressions were not in line with the will of the state became a chilling facet of “the new normal”.
Fear became a weapon of choice in the war on COVID, as the line between scientifically-backed responses to SARS-CoV-2 and the use of the pandemic to fuel autocracy, quickly became blurred.
Here at home, emergency regulations drafted by the former administration – subsequently amended following intervention by the opposition – were written in such a way as to put residents at risk of being imprisoned if they said something the prime minister as competent authority, deemed “fake news.”
It was a stunning and dangerous attempt at overriding one’s fundamental right to freedom of expression that went over the heads of many Bahamians, who were not paying attention to the ins and outs of what their government presented to Parliament as a so-called response to COVID-19.
The constitutional right of Bahamians to return home from abroad was violated, emergency laws gave police the power to stop and search individuals at will – a power that was often buttressed by intrusive roadblocks featuring high-powered weapons as if guns and bullets were an antidote to SARS-CoV-2.
Restrictions made it illegal to be outside one’s home whether or not an individual was infected with the COVID virus, and hundreds of residents were subjected to arrest though there was no evidence that they presented a transmission risk to the public.
Constitutionally, The Bahamas is governed by the Cabinet, and not by a prime minister.
However, Cabinet governance was set on its head when one-man emergency rule was carved out for the former prime minister last term.
Parliamentary oversight of government actions was stymied by repeated issuances of emergency proclamations, which some lawyers argued was not the intent of the constitution.
And for the first time in a modern Bahamas, eligible Bahamians were set to be stripped of their voting rights by the state – a fundamental violation that cuts to the heart of what it means to live in a democracy.
Many Bahamians might have thought that once they got rid of the Minnis administration at the polls last year, they no longer needed to worry about such abuses and antics.
But it is precisely this kind of thinking that leaves us open to further erosions of our democracy, because we tend to focus more so on personalities behind an action, rather than on the factors that enable such actions to occur or persist.
The reality is that a democracy cannot become or remain healthy on its own.
Democracies must be nurtured and protected by citizens who know their rights, respect the rights of others, and recognize their responsibility to fight against violations of those rights because if one person’s rights are trampled on, everyone’s rights are under threat.
IT MAY NOT BE
COVID NEXT TIME
In previous articles, we warned that a protracted suspension of constitutional rights not only could have the effect of beguiling Bahamians into believing that such a thing ought to become the norm, but could so desensitize Bahamians to their rights and the imperative to protect them, that it could incentivize future governments to utilize states of emergency for their political benefit.
After all, the governor general who issues a proclamation of emergency is a creature of instruction, and once government decides it wants a state of emergency declared for what it determines is an emergency, the same will be declared.
Fear has a way of causing people to surrender what belongs to them, believing that doing so would guarantee their safety.
Today, the matter is COVID-19. Tomorrow, if Bahamians are not vigilant, the matter could be something else.
While in opposition, the now governing Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) railed against the former administration’s handling of emergency orders, criticizing the adoption of one-man emergency rule, and the continuous use of emergency proclamations and its curtailment of civil liberties, as a means of responding to the pandemic.
Last January, Perspective asked the then opposition leader Philip Brave Davis if he believed amendments to the Emergency Powers Act were needed to aid in preventing his or any other government from engaging in the kind of abuses of power his party railed against.
At the time, Davis said he was not of the view that amendments to the act were required.
We expressed to Davis our concern that outside of a successful legal challenge, there is currently nothing in law that would prevent his or any other government from engaging in the same or similar kinds of overreaches witnessed under the Minnis administration, be it for COVID-19 or any other matter.
Last term was the first time in an independent Bahamas that the Emergency Powers Act was utilized.
Though a competent authority was designated in last term’s COVID response, the act does not explicitly call for the designation of a competent authority for the issuance of emergency orders via regulations promulgated by the governor general.
In Caribbean countries such as Barbados, for example, emergency response legislation explicitly designates the Cabinet as the body that shall issue emergency orders once a declaration of emergency is made.
Under last term’s states of emergency, Parliament had no oversight over emergency orders issued by the competent authority, and the orders would be tabled in bulk – sometimes already expired – whenever the competent authority decided he wanted Parliament to meet again.
As we argued in detail last term and as the country now sees, the Health Services Act which has been on the books for decades, has built within it the necessary provisions to enable government to respond to an infectious disease outbreak.
And since rules under the act issued by the minister do not first require parliamentary approval, the argument that a state of emergency was continuously needed in order to ensure rapid response to changing pandemic indicators, appears moot.
In an article last year on the United Kingdom Institute for Government website, discussions on deeper parliamentary oversight of government’s powers during the COVID response were outlined.
Regarding the Coronavirus Act 2020 enacted by the UK Parliament in response to the pandemic, the institute advised, “Shami Chakrabarti, the shadow attorney general, said it was preferable to have a bespoke piece of legislation to allow the government’s powers to be viewed in the round and scrutinized by Parliament.
“Under the Coronavirus Act 2020, directions made by a minister relating to potentially infectious people and to limit events and gatherings do not need to be put before Parliament. Other measures must be taken by statutory instrument – requiring parliamentary approval.”
It is our view that the Emergency Powers Act ought to be meaningfully reviewed, and its provisions amended to specify the Cabinet as the authority to make rules and orders under a state of emergency, and to strengthen checks on executive power beyond Parliament’s ability to approve or revoke the extension of a state of emergency.
A prime minister might very well pledge not to repeat the wrongs of his predecessor, and we might have faith in his word not to do so, but good laws ought to be his bond irrespective of his word.
Bahamians cannot effectively fight to protect rights they know or understand little to nothing about.
We have taken the position in this article that freedom is not free, and adopt the view of philosopher Elbert Hubbard that, “responsibility is the price of freedom”.
Bahamians make time for and search out what matters to them, and if the rights and freedoms of Bahamians are to be protected today and beyond, Bahamians must take personal responsibility in becoming knowledgeable about their rights and freedoms.
The internet takes away the excuse of many that they cannot access content on these rights, and there are sufficient avenues available nowadays wherein rights and freedoms which are not fully understood, can be explained to the average Bahamian.
Paying the price of freedom also means being responsible in the way we approach another person’s right to lawful expression – that is, expression that does not slander or defame another person, or incite violence.
Bahamians are becoming increasingly intolerant of the views of others, and social media, as just one example, is rife with toxic back and forth between users who are unable to disagree without resorting to verbal attacks, threats or other acts of intimidation.
Some Bahamians believe that if a person’s viewpoints do not align with their own, or if they dislike the person who is speaking, such a person should be censored, and they celebrate attacks against popular or influential Bahamians who do not share their thoughts or promote their ideas.
We have seen this play out prominently worldwide during the pandemic, wherein the counterproductive dynamic of groupthink has resulted in sustained attacks against and demonization of anyone who does not subscribe to certain narratives associated with the COVID response.
Meantime, many Bahamians continue to express fear of victimization or reprisal if they express thoughts that might go contrary to the thoughts or desires of those in power or those with power.
Beyond actions taken by governments, these mindsets and actions on the part of everyday Bahamians are among the most potent of threats to our freedoms, and give rise to legitimate questions about just how free we truly are as a society.
Cognitive scientist and philosopher Noam Chomsky once said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”, and historian and philosopher Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
If such positions are not held and pursued by the majority of Bahamians, it will only be a matter of time before another leader arises in our country to further test limits of control and suppression.
Vigilance on the part of the media remains critical, and is generally not as consistent as it ought to be in The Bahamas.
Where journalists are not well read or well researched; where there is ethical compromise or too-close a relationship between journalists and public officials; where journalists are incurious, lax or reluctant to press for answers; or where journalists settle for the word of officials without checking facts and challenging officials with those facts, the democracy is weakened.
US founding father Thomas Jefferson is among several during the 19th century credited with the quote, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Building a better Bahamas takes continuous work, and that work not only involves brick, mortar, money and the hands to build it.
It involves a better appreciation of, and an eternal push for, the upholding and protection of essential intangibles that are at the foundation of our nationhood.
Those intangibles are our freedoms upon which no price tag can be set, but without which a better and worthy Bahamas is an impossible aspiration.