I have addressed my mind to the presidential directives and Ministry of Health guidelines associated with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has taken the world by storm.
COVID-19 is the short form of Corona Virus Disease of 2019 that was first diagnosed in the Chinese town Wuhan in December 2019. The virus has since spread worldwide as of now with 472,529 cases registered worldwide that is 336,484 people infected and battling the virus, 21,305 death and 114,740 people that have recovered from the virus. The number increases day by day.
On the 11th day of March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that an outbreak of the viral disease COVID-19 had reached the level of a global pandemic and called on all governments to take urgent and aggressive actions to stop the spread of the virus.
Uganda has so far tested and confirmed 18(eighteen) Ugandans to have the virus, while over 3000 Ugandans are in mandatory institutional quarantine and over 500 are in monitored self-isolation.
On the 18th, 21st, 22nd, 24th and 25th of March 2020, the President of Uganda issued several directives and guidelines regarding the COVID-19 Pandemic that include but not limited to mandatory institutional quarantine for travellers from category one countries.
Category one countries are countries that have registered high infections of over 100 cases, despite the category one list continuously changing with time China, Italy, South Korea, Germany, France and the UK have been consistently on the list.
Quarantine is extremely restrictive, desperate times call for desperate measures and this is a difficult time and people have come to terms with the new norm quarantine.
Some commentators have come up to intimate that isn’t this violation of individual rights? But it is my opinion that the balance between individual rights and public safety is always an ever-changing equation.
International Human Rights law guarantees everyone the right to the highest attainable standard of health and obligates governments to take steps to prevent threats to public health and provide medical care to those who may need it.
Article 12 of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights (ICESCR) which Uganda has ratified to, though not yet domesticated, provides that everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and the government is obligated to take effective steps for prevention, treatment and control of epidemic and other diseases.
This reasoning is further clarified in Article 25 of the Siracusa Principles adopted by the United Nations (UN) Economic, Social Council and Human Rights Committee, which states that rights and freedoms can be limited to allow a state to take measures dealing with a serious threat to the health of the population or individual members of the population.
The Siracusa principle, further clarifies that restriction should be minimum and should be carried out in accordance with the law and respect to human dignity, among others.
In light of the Ugandan context where the president issued directives to effect mandatory institutional quarantine and self-isolation contrary to article 23 of the Ugandan constitution, which provides that no person shall be deprived of personal liberty, there is an exception under article 23(d) of the same constitution where personal liberty can be deprived for the purpose of preventing the spread of an infectious or contagious disease. Some other commentators reason that quarantining Ugandans is a violation of their human dignity yet this is a non-derogable right.
The state and severity of COVID-19 pandemic clearly rises to the level of a public health threat that could justify restrictions on certain rights, such as those that resist the imposition of quarantine or isolation limiting freedom of movement.
The applicable law in the Ugandan context is Article 23(d) of the constitution as enumerated supra and this is buttressed, operationalized, implemented, enforced and brought to life by the Public Health Act of Uganda.
Sections 29 and 36 of the Public Health Act allude to the powers of the Minister of Health to Make Rules and enforce precaution at borders during times of epidemics or Pandemics for prevention of diseases and this to be done by a Statutory order by the minister of Health that should be gazetted to have force of law. The reason why these powers were bestowed on the Ministry of Health is the expertise and competence that the ministry of health has in such Pandemics.
In some emergency situations like the COVID-19 Pandemic, we may expect knee jerk reactions that are done in good faith and for the best interest of all Ugandans but for the rule of law to prevail such reactions can be ratified by the appropriate authorities to avoid unnecessary litigations and ensuring we have the force of law to prosecute violators of the directives.
Against this backdrop, I applaud the Ministry of Health for having listened to our advocacy and campaign to respect the rule of law by way of issuing Statutory notice envisaging control of COVID-19 in Uganda and having them gazetted hence giving life and the force of law to the President’s directives that are timely being issued.
In conclusion, I appreciate all stakeholders in the battle against this Pandemic more so the Ministry of Health officials that have been on the forefront of the battle, I also call on all Ugandans to follow the ministry of Health Guidelines regarding this Pandemic. Wash your Hands frequently, Practice social distance now at 4 metres, avoid handshakes, isolate yourself from others if you have any symptoms of the virus and contact ministry of health officials on 0800-100-066 0r 0800203033
The writer, Dr Aruho Amon Kategaya, is a Dentist/Advocate High Court of Uganda. He is also a PHD Candidate Medical Law- University of Kwazulu Natal Durban (UKZN) and a member of Enforcement of Patients and Health Workers’ Rights Uganda (www.ephwor.org)