The COVID-19 pandemic posed unprecedented challenges across all aspects of public and private life all over the world, including Bangladesh. The government was also faced with various obstructions which necessitated it to undertake actions and issue regulatory measures for the protection of life and health of the people. These measures have had multifaceted impacts upon the people and their rights. This writing reviews some of these measures in light of their impacts.
Declaration of General Holiday and the virtual 'lawlessness'
The Ministry of Public Administration declared general holidays through gazette notifications which extended from March till May, 2020. The general holiday exempted hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores and essential services. In the gazette published on April 1, 2020, the transport of food, medical equipment, essential goods agricultural products, insecticides, fossil fuel, newspaper, industrial goods etc. were exempted. On April 5, the gazette stated that transport facilities such as rickshaw, van and bus/rail would eventually restart movement. This unofficial lockdown resulted in loss of employment for a significant portion of the population, especially those engaged in informal sectors. Furthermore, during this so-called general holiday, since the forum for enforcing fundamental rights, namely, the Supreme Court, was not functioning, such rights remained virtually suspended; that too, without a declaration of emergency.
Resumption of all courts, including the Supreme Court
All courts, including the Supreme Court of Bangladesh had remained closed since 24 March until the passage of the Usage of Information and Technology by Court, Ordinance (subsequently replaced by the Act in the same name) was passed. Under this law, the courts were empowered to conduct proceedings virtually. However, the practice directions issued under the Ordinance mandated an urgency application, the ultimate determination of which remained with the Court(s) in question. As a result, as far as fundamental rights were concerned, the right of the litigants to move the Supreme Court remained at first, entirely restricted and subsequently, entertained subject to the urgency of the matter.
Shutdown of educational institutions and cancellation of HSC Exams
The educational institutions at all levels have been closed since March, 2020. The government undertook the initiative to broadcast digital classes on television whereas the physical classes remained closed. Public universities began taking online classes in July amidst concerns regarding the digital divide and scope of discrimination against students from peripheral areas. In October, it was declared that Higher Secondary Certificate exams were cancelled and grades would be determined on the basis of results of the previous Board exams. The continued shutdown of physical classes as well as conducting educational activities online raise concerns as to the deprivation of students from a proper education and of exacerbating existing inequalities.
Suspension of religious gatherings
The Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, operating under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, issued a notification in April suspending religious gatherings including Jummah prayers on Fridays. Other religious groups were also urged to restrict their gatherings in an effort to minimise the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Although largely unregulated, such restrictions have affected the people's right to observe their religion.
Directions under the Communicable Diseases Act, 2018
The Director General of Health Services issued a circular in April, stating that not wearing masks in public would be deemed an offence under Section 24 of the Act for 'transmitting a communicable disease' – the fine for which can be up to BDT 1 Lakh and also under Section 25 of the Act for failure to comply with the directions of the DG – the fine for which can go up to BDT 50,000. The Mobile Courts have been prosecuting people across the country for failure to adhere to these directions. Although seen as a measure for extraordinary circumstances, the functions of the mobile courts are questionable for their lack of compliance with constitutional standards and due process principles. Other directions provided guidelines on how to dispose dead bodies of patients contaminated with the COVID-19 virus.
Directions on Healthcare providers to not speak to the media
In mid-April, the Director General of the Department of Nursing and Midwifery stated via an office order that the officials and staff members under the said department cannot speak publicly without permission of the authority. The Health Minister also spoke at a public event where he stressed on the need for healthcare officials to refrain from portraying the government in negative light before the media. These directions had bearing on the right of freedom of speech of healthcare personnel as well as the public's right to information. While a pandemic like the COVID-19 necessitates free flow of information for people to remain informed and better-prepared to deal with their vulnerabilities, censorships as the ones imposed by the Government and different agencies thereof left people more vulnerable amid the unprecedented crisis.
From Law Desk, The Daily Star.