Have the new powers given to the prime minister on account of the fear of a coronavirus spread in Saint Lucia difficult to retract, hereby crippling further its fledgling democracy, which is already on wobbling feet?
Saint Lucia, through Statutory Instrument No.46 of 2020, gave the prime minister powers to curfew Saint Lucians, close or open whatever service in the country he deems fit, not counting the services that pass as essential services. Through the SI the prime minister can mandate that Saint Lucians stay away from each other – a term known as physical distancing, determine the number of Saint Lucians that could be anywhere, confine Saint Lucians to their homes, impose restrictions on the social activities of Saint Lucians, even restrict them from travelling overseas or driving their own cars in their own country and more.
SI 46 notes that these sweeping powers the prime minister has will be revoked when the state of emergency we are now in ceases.
The exact wording is as follows: “This Order ceases to have effect when the declaration of state of emergency pursuant to which this Order has been made ceases to have effect.”
When will this state of emergency cease to have effect we do not know, as the world’s health experts are now predicting that the coronavirus will be with us for quite some time even though several countries are racing to develop an effective vaccine within a year’s time?
There is no doubt that Saint Lucians, all fearful of the disease, appeared to have welcome legislation that have drastically curtailed their freedoms. They seem to have given up all in the name of this new normal called social distancing, COVID-19, fear of contracting the disease and more.
“The speed and breadth of the transformation is unsettling political scientists, government watchdogs and rights groups. Many concede that emergency declarations and streamlining government decision-making are necessary responses to a global health threat. But they question how readily leaders will give up the powers they’ve accrued when the coronavirus eventually subsides,” wrote Michael Birnbaum and Terrence McCoy in the Washington Post of April 12, 2020.
The duo quoted Tomas Valasek, a Slovak lawmaker as saying “This is a situation where it’s far too easy to make arguments for undue interference with civil rights and liberties.”
Now I am not, even in the smallest of ways, inferring that Prime Minister Allen Chastanet relishes the powers he now yields. It struck me however that in all his televised appearances he has not given a clue of a desire for Saint Lucians to go back to the real normal, meaning giving them a time in the very near future when he will relinquish the added powers he has.
History has shown that past moments of extreme anxiety have given rise to measures that long outlived the crisis they were imposed to address. The Washington Post reporters wrote that after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, Egyptians lived 31 more years under a state of emergency that granted the government sweeping security powers.
The reporters also noted that the state of emergency declared in France after terrorist attacks in November 2015 remained in place for two years — and was ended only after many of the surveillance powers it enabled were made permanent.
They also claimed that in the United States, the 9/11 attacks led to emergency measures that persist to this day. The detention center in Guantánamo Bay is still open. Targeted drone killings continue. Under the Patriot Act, mass surveillance is still possible.
There is no doubt that this pandemic poses some unique challenges for the Chastanet led administration, as was seen by the decisions made when the country recorded its first COVID-19 case. Some of these decisions lacked foresight and had to be revised.
It is quite a task for the government in this pandemic, finding the right balance between safety of the public and their privacy and sustaining their economic survival.
How the Chastanet led administration goes about in finding that elusive right balance without jeopardizing the public’s safety, freedoms and economic survival which they have taken an oath to protect, will determine how well this country rides out this pandemic.
It is hoped that the powers conveyed on the prime minister as a result of this pandemic does not put the country, including the opposition, in a position where it is unable to properly scrutinize potentially epoch-making decisions by the prime minister, because if this is done, Saint Lucia will be in a far worse condition coming out of the pandemic than it was prior to the pandemic.
As noted by the Washington Post reporters who quoted Sergio Carrera, who tracks rule-of-law issues at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies.
“The moment a government takes such drastic measures, especially in fast ways, in COVID-19, it is extremely difficult to take the horse back by the reins.”