COLUMN | Why National Assembly Mustn’t Abandon Ship & Govt Must Pass Emergency Legislation [COVID-19 Act]
By Pa Louis Sambou
In the trying times ahead of us, having seen what happened in China and is currently happening in Europe, it is without a doubt that when (or if) COVID-19 reaches our shores by the same measure and in the manner anticipated, a fundamental change of the sort never experienced in peacetime will be forced upon us by circumstances. Such will impact every age group, community and work of life. Therefore, it is best to prepare for the storm to come now than work against its tide on arrival.
There could be no worse a time to be complacent than now. The decommissioning of the single most important legislative and institution of Executive scrutiny [the National Assembly] is a grave error in judgment. To coin an analogy, this feels like a naval navigator at sea retiring themselves having had their traditional equipment damaged by the turbulence before the storm. This makes an emerging crisis even worse, compromising every critical countermeasure there is available to steady the ship. The National Assembly must resume sittings and, emergency legislation [COVID-19 Act] must be passed to regulate a whole raft of essential aspects of daily life in what may soon be the new norm for some time to come:
Temporary Restriction of Civil Liberties
Rights under the Constitution enjoyed in normal times by all may have to be restricted at some time in the future and unit further notice. Most notable of these will be the right to freedom of movement within jurisdiction and the right not to be detained beyond the prescribed 72 hours and so forth just to name a few.
Temporary Enforced Closure and Restriction of nonessential Business
Business as usual may soon (if not already) be a hazard which could speed up the mutation and spread of the virus. Certain businesses will therefore have to be compelled to close especially those which encourage and depend on the presence of large gatherings e.g the travel, tourism, leisure and hospitality sectors.
Mortuary Use and Funeral Service Restrictions
The access of and use of the mortuary(ies) will have to be restricted and certain normal times practices discouraged altogether if not outlawed. Traditionally, funeral services invite large gatherings, something which in the era of COVID-19 could increase its spread and lead to more deaths. This must be restrained.
Events around the COVID-19 hit world would suggest that at its peak (if such happens to us that is), we will see an increased mortality rate than witnessed in normal times. Therefore, there needs to be restrictions and guidance in place to regulate this in such a manner so as to eliminate risk to public health as far as humanly possible. Eg the State taking custody of all COVID-19 corpses or indeed any corpse and perhaps using volunteers or the Military to supervise transportation and burial of corpses with the cooperation of immediate family members of the deceased of course.
Requisition of Key Private Assets and Infrastructure
At such time of need, certain privately owned and run services and infrastructure which are key to the utility and maintenance of society in the context of an emergency such as COVID -19 may at some point be required to operate in such a manner and at such pace as dictated by circumstances. One cannot imagine how this objective can be achieved whilst such services and infrastructure remain in private ownership; where absolutely necessary the State machinery will have to take over these and effectively seize them into state ownership, control and and use and for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency for the benefit of wider society.
An example of these key and critical services and infrastructure which may require requisitioning include private healthcare facilities and supply chains (to increase the capacity and ability of the State healthcare system to deal with the COVID-19 emergency), privately owned public transport vehicles (to transport food supplies, key and essential personnel and service providers like healthcare staff, emergency services workers, patients, corpses, volunteers and Troops and Police personnel), cellular phone and data services companies (to facilitate effective government communication dissemination to citizens via sms cascade messages, liberalise or even avail free data to all and reduce call charges for families to keep in touch without the need to travel or commute), the food supply chain and production lines (to nationalise and bring into temporary State ownership and control food production and distribution to provide basic nutritional requirements for the population at reasonable public expense for the duration ) and school premises (to use as makeshift and / or overflow detention facilities (to free up space at Mile 2 prisons etc) and overflow hospital wards to quarantine people etc.) just to name a few.
It is obvious that the reality of the COVID-19 emergency will deprive law-abiding people staying at home in compliance with the rules of the new reality of their livelihoods and capacity to earn and put food on the table. Under these circumstances, it is only right and proper that the provision of food for the public becomes the legal duty of the State.
In the absence of the above, it may be a challenge keeping people isolated at home, the failure of which could lead to more cases of the disease in society and more avoidable deaths. Additionally, hunger in the population would more likely than not lead to food riots and / or looting. It is absolutely essential that when the need arises, this aspect of basic daily need is taken over and fulfilled by that State at no cost to people and effectively maintained for as long as necessary.
Tax Breaks, Rents and Utilities Bills Holidays
The substantial reduction in economic activity which the emergency will likely impose on society is a situation which will no doubt incapacitate the ability of businesses to pay certain business taxes, rents likewise wages and other overheads. This is something which must be considered with an anticipated plan and strategy in place to deal with it both during and after the emergency.
Equally, as well as ordinary people losing the ability to keep the electric meter and water supply running, residential tenants would also suffer significant reductions in income to such an extent they won’t have the means to pay the rent, a ripple effect which will also impact the landlords’ ability to fulfil their tax obligations to both the Revenue Authority and the Local Authorities. These have got to be dealt with (eg by having a later time to pay scheme in place) and businesses, employers and families reassured.
There may no doubt be a need from time to time for there to be imposed curfews in certain areas and for a number of reasons for the protection of the public or for whatever reason circumstances might dictate without a need to convene the National Assembly to pass a state of emergency motion etc. This power has got to be made reasonably available to appropriate authorities to proportionately apply, use from time to time and when absolutely necessary.
Emergency Policing Powers
Under our existing legal framework, the Powers available to the Police are hugely dwarfed by what will be the Policing requirements of dealing with a novel emergency such as the one we brace ourselves up for. The current Police manning may also not be able to cope when the time comes. Therefore, the Military may need to be drafted into certain aspects of day-to-day Policing and the Policing powers of the the Police reviewed and adjusted to reasonably meet the Policing needs and requirements of the emergency to come.
All of the above stated will require effective and efficient Policing, likewise the relevant powers to match what is required under the circumstances to police and reasonably enforce compliance in COVID-19 Gambia at a time when Courts aren’t sitting. Emergency powers must not under any circumstances be subject to Police discretion.
Emergency Powers to Local Authorities
As already seen around the COVID-19 hit world, trying to deal with the public restrictions and operations required to deal with this emergency won’t be something any centralised operator will attempt to solely deliver on its own without unnecessarily undermining public safety. The cooperation and involvement of local governments up and down the country is an absolute necessity. Therefore, local authorities will need to be given clearly defined Executive powers (and the spending powers) within which to operate beyond their current existing powers and budget.
National Assembly Sittings
The presence of an emergency increases the need for the National Assembly rather than diminish it. Whilst it may not be the responsible thing to do for the National Assembly to carry on sitting in the usual way, it does not serve society for its elected representatives to abandon their scrutiny roles at a time of dire need such as the one we anticipate will hit us. In this digital age, Parliamentary sittings can still take place remotely via a range of internet platforms such as Bluejeans etc without any need to converge into a single building. The National Assembly should make use of technology to continue to discharge its duty at a time it is needed more than ever.
National Parliaments around the world continue to benin session whilst dealing with COVID-19, if others can, why not The Gambia? As a matter of fact, the UK Parliament sat through the second World War when Britain was at war with the Nazis. The National Assembly must reconsider its decision to break ranks. This is just not the time to abandon ship.
It is critically important that the National Assembly reconsiders its decision to go into self-imposed hibernation in an emergency such as the one we brace up for. They must device a way to continue to hold regular sittings remotely and to discharge all such legislative duties as may be required under the circumstances (including to scrutinise and pass the COVID-19 legislation I strongly advocate) whilst at the same time maintaining an active line of communication with their constituents via remote internet-enabled means. In an emergency, ordinary citizens go into lockdown but, decision makers’ services to the public carries on.
Decision makers can certainly not and must not go into hibernation nor must the National Assembly and the Government leave the administration of the seismic changes which the COVID-19 emergency is about to impose on society to the arbitrary discretion of necessity. An emergency legislation [COVID-19 Act] is an absolute necessity which the government must urgently consult on and introduce to ( a remotely convened Parliament) as a matter of absolute necessity. Not doing so will leave a large vacuum which will inevitably invite unnecessary chaos, abuse and untold unnecessary suffering to ordinary people.
I strongly and genuinely urge and appeal to the government and the National Assembly to seriously consider this / these absolutely necessary legal instrument, measures and much more so as to set the country ahead of the curve before it is too late.