Rights, Obligations and 'Emergency Measures' in Unprecedented Times.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Indian police clear out anti-government protest citing coronavirus ...


This has to be the most used word within the past month or two, especially in the corporate world. From emails by banks, reassuring customers that their funds will be well taken care of, to notices by fast-food joints announcing alternative modes of customer service, as a result of the present global pandemic pandemonium.

Use of the word thus aptly reflects the times we find ourselves in: Unprecedented times.

It is not that the world has not faced trouble before. There have been two World Wars. But one can argue that there were months’ long build-up, and actual conflict was restricted to only certain parts of the world.

And while there was the Spanish Flu of 1918, which was considered equally as deadly (if not more) than the current COVID19, there are contributing factors which perhaps put this present pandemic on the pedestal of ‘unprecedented’.

The single biggest contributor is globalisation. In 1918 there was no internet, and while countries were in talks with each other, the world had not gotten to the level of collaboration it has presently. Now, you could be having breakfast in the UK, lunch in Dubai, and dinner in Zimbabwe. All in a space of 24 hours.

We are all soooooo connected to each other, and various aspects of our lives have all merged across one another that there is almost no possibility of life as we know it continuing to thrive happily, while the virus rages away.

There is also the blessing (and maybe curse?) of prior knowledge. The knowledge of how prior pandemics swept across continents, and wreaked havoc in their wake. If that could happen then when the world was not as interconnected as it presently is, it is easily imaginable how this present COVID19 could leave quite some damage, if left unchecked.

Which explains why the world has leaped into action, with various world leaders and government adopting emergency measures, to deal with this faceless enemy.

What began as mere advice and subsequently, strong recommendations, have quickly evolved into mandatory lock downs instituted across countries, like China, Italy, and recently UK, in order to curb the spread of the virus.

From less stringent measures in parts of Canada, where governments are advising people to stay indoors and avoid possible transmission through clusters, to harsher measures, like in India, where citizens are being flogged if seen on the streets.

And then, there is Hungary, where the government has totally suspended democracy (as used to be known), and handed over all reins for taking national decisions by unilateral decree, to the President.

On the other side of the globe, even as it fails to achieve universal physical distancing, the US has taken advantage of the COVID19 crisis to indefinitely suspend enforcement of environmental laws.

(I’m still confused on the correlation between the enforcement of environmental obligations and COVID19)

Private establishments have not been left out of emergency measures too, with the impact of slowing business resulting into massive job losses and pay cuts being announced. Air Canada recently cut about 15,000 jobs, with 90% of its flights operations said to be grounded, due to the virus.

In places like the Federal Capital Territory Nigeria (for example), a very renowned, high-brow (faith-based) private school retroactively slashed salaries of teachers for March to 50%. This is despite the school fees having being all paid upfront at the beginning of the term in January, and the term having technically closed for the Easter break, as exams concluded just before mandatory lockdown enforced in the city.

 (Almost as though some employers were itching for the excuse to – literally - pull the rug from under employees’ legs).

But hey… it has not been depressing emergency measures all through. Companies like TD-Canada Trust have vowed that not one employee would be let go, because of the COVID19 crisis.

(Wow. That's some scary guts though)

Governments like Canada have swung into action in enforcing measures to mitigate economic losses by businesses and mortgage payers.

(Errrmmm... but what of renters?? I'm sure some renters would be among those losing jobs this period. Should there not be some moratorium on rent as well??)

On the other side of the globe, Nigeria has embarked on a payment intervention funds to the ‘poorest of the poor’, for the period of the lockdown enforced in parts of the country.

(*scratches head*)

For a country where 87.5 million are said to be in abject poverty, how have "winners" of the poverty contest been identified?

Considering the abject lack of statistics/a comprehensive and verifiable database the country suffers and an absence of a clear mode to establish said poorest of the poor, this has been (rightly) met with wide contempt as not only an avenue for siphoning funds, but also as a pat on the backs  for faithful of the ruling party. Quid pro quo, if you may.


In all of this, the question is: how far is too far? I mean... what measures would be considered reasonable enough in the circumstances, to mitigate the havoc of COVID19.

Is it fair to restrict the movement of citizens, contrary to universally acknowledged rights to movement, for the greater good of flattening the curve of transmissions?

What about employee rights in employment? Should employers bear the brunt of loss of business, or pass it on to employees? Should parties to existing contracts be allowed to invoke Force Majeure? Should individuals be allowed to get out of binding obligations, on the basis of Frustration?

How far should emergency measures be wielded, against existing rights and obligations?

While it may not totally apply in this particular circumstance, I'm easily drawn to my favourite court ruling on the balancing of rights; R. V. N(S). Here, the Supreme Court of Canada has espoused the principle that where there are competing rights, the Court would weigh the positive (salutary) and negative (deleterious) effects of affirming each right in that circumstance. The right with more positives in that particular situation would be accorded precedence.

Loosely applying this logic to today’s pandemic world, emergency measures should be allowed, to the extent that the need for such measures greatly outweigh competing rights, which right may be reasonably suspended in the circumstances.

This should however not be interpreted to be a call for totally unhindered flouting of human rights, such as randomly flogging citizens to enforce social distancing, or completely eroding all democracies in order to hand over power to a single authoritarian person.

Rather, some semblance of checks and balances should still be allowed. After all, a total breakdown of order would make it impossible for our world to survive; the most extreme of actions would be difficult to recover from, post-pandemic.

While we may not know how long this present situation will last, one thing remains certain though:

When this pandemic passes, there will be a CASCADE of lawsuits, human rights cases and criminal proceedings, for actions (or inaction) taken during the pandemic At that point, the reasonableness of emergency measures and actions taken will be called into question severally, and I dare say will be at the centre of every legal contest.

Hard as it may sound, it would be wise to pause before rushing into action (or inaction), with eyes transfixed on the tunnel-vision of the present COVID19 lifestyle. Hard as it may sound, consider the effects of actions or inaction within the bigger picture, the longer term, and be sure that a chosen course of action (or inaction) will be held justifiable vis-à-vis the present chaos.

It would help for governments, institutions and individuals alike to remember that there WILL be a life after this pandemic. At which point actions of various parties will be considered: whether ethical, conscionable, reasonable, and/or fair, in light of the circumstances; whether the least drastic or invasive measures, justifiable by the circumstances was applied.

Always remember: there will be a life after COVID19.




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  1. I can't wait for everything to get back to normal. Sometimes, we dont value what we have until it's gone. If i could i'd gladly have the old normal pre-covid back.