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Reflections on the Covid-19 confinement

Last week’s papers ran screaming headlines that I was one of those quarantined as part of an effort to contain COVID-19. It was a week in which a President and a Judge were directed by law to be in confinement – some form of victory for the rule of law!

As the COVID-19 storms gathered in the Pacific and countries were sealing their borders, one after the other, and Australia, USA and New Zealand were calling upon their citizens to come home. I took a decision to be close to my family at this difficult time, notwithstanding that at the time Papua New Guinea had no confirmed cases of COVID-19. So I took the very last permitted flight out of Port Moresby to Singapore – and at Singapore I took the last permitted flight out of Singapore to Johannesburg.

Once in Johannesburg the full scale of the COVID-19 disruption was in full display. The airport looked deserted. My connecting flight, SA Express, had cancelled flights to Gaborone and I had to rebook my ticket on SA Link, to fly home.

Once in Johannesburg I was happy to be joined by my loving daughter, currently schooling in Pretoria, so that we could fly home together. It was an impromptu decision on her part, triggered by loving orders of Mom dearest, who, fearful of the impending lockdown in South Africa, and the possible adverse ramifications, ordered her daughter to join Daddy dearest, and come home forthwith!

Without an idea of what awaited us at home, we took off from Johannesburg and in less than an hour we landed at Sir Seretse Khama Airport. It looked deserted from far; and there was an unmistakable sense of changed times.

A glance at the arrival terminal made it clear that things had dramatically changed. There was a line-up of police vans and police officers in uniform. The symbols of coercive state power were in display. We had reason to be apprehensive. We walked gingerly towards the terminal and went through the required immigration protocols smoothly.

Thereafter we were driven through the city to IDM hostels. As we were driving through the city from the Airport I saw my dear wife waving to us, and from far I could see that she was absolutely stressed and she followed our combi wherever it went, until we arrived at IHS. Thanks Wifey!

At IHS we were taken to our rooms. The conditions were unpleasant and inappropriate. We shared bathroom facilities. In my corridor, water flow was erratic, and there was no soap or hand sanitiser. It was the very opposite of what should have happened.

At the heart of an effective COVID-19 response is the imperative to wash your hands regularly with soap at the very minimum!

This was not availed to us at our new home! We felt compromised! Frustration reached boiling point and caution was thrown to the wind! I saw many who had come wearing masks all of a sudden using them to wipe out sweat, whilst others loosened up and let them hang on their chins!

On the day of our arrival at IHS food came well after 10pm for some of us. My daughter and I shared a room and we were not amused to find other tenants, cockroaches, residing in our allocated space. We had no choice but to confront these creatures of God, and eventually kill them as they exhibited hostile and threatening tendencies to harm us.

At night my daughter was haunted by the unhygienic conditions and whilst fast asleep she kept repeatedly saying, “this place is horrible Dad”. The following day I briefed my elder brother, MK, about our conditions and asked him for some tips on how to survive confinement given his 15 years at Robben Island prison experience. However, he was in no laughing mood. He was livid, asking me repeatedly: “What do you want me to do?” He was clearly frustrated and only relaxed after we were trans Travelodge. Thanks Senior!

So quite plainly, whilst the decision to quarantine was the correct one, the implementation was patently and indefensibly wrong, compromised and traumatised many. It violated every rule on quarantining issued by the World Health Organisation.

The health personnel who were assigned the quarantine operation in extreme haste were wonderful and they did their very best to assist. They were patient, and understanding, but it was clear they were thrown a hot potato by those entrusted with running our affairs.

All of us need to take COVID-19 seriously. It is hard to believe that just three months ago we hardly knew of this highly contagious disease and now, all of a sudden, things have changed so dramatically that we are literally living in a different world to the one we had always known.

Three months later the disease has literally engulfed the whole world, leaving death in its trail and many resilient and fine health systems in the world on their knees. It has separated loved ones, grounded flights, closed coffee shops and bars, and confined everyone at home. More painfully many have lost their jobs.

Henceforth our future depends on the actions of government and the conduct of the broader public to contain and defeat the disease. We need to ensure that the rules on social distancing

are properly enforced and that our frontline health personnel is fully protected, because without that the nation is vulnerable. This frontline health staff must be accommodated separately if possible for the duration of the war.

In this battle we cannot afford to make costly mistakes and government needs to remain united and focused on defeating the virus. The government coordination and communication apparatus must be first class. The response must be driven by science and a determined political leadership.

An effective response requires government to quarantine, test, trace, isolate and treat. This is what countries like China, South Korea and Singapore have done. We cannot afford a rudderless and uncoordinated response with mixed and even contradictory messages. Similarly the public, through social media postings should be responsible and not spread fake news or in anyway undermine government efforts to contain the pandemic.

We should make sure that the stigma that accompanied HIV is not repeated. It is only through education that we can empower our people to know that everyone is vulnerable to this disease and that we need unity, solidarity, compassion and love to defeat it.

COVID-19 reminds us how vulnerable, connected and dependable we are on each other. Stigma is counter-productive and undermines an effective response.

Facebook posts that suggest Ramotswa is Wuhan are unfortunate and must be discouraged. We cannot win the war through stigma and ignorance.

Fake news that undermine an effective response should be discouraged strongly. As with HIV there are people who are spreading all sorts of falsehoods, denying the existence of COVID-19 and trivialising it.

Quarantine is necessary in the age of corona. However, any form of confinement even in a hotel is not necessarily a bed of roses.

It can be lonely and boring. It can be unsettling when you are awaiting the results. Most of us spent more time online, on WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom. Suddenly you have time to call people you have not talked to in years. Being fed three times a day with no opportunity to exercise may be frustrating and it is easy to put on weight. It is, however, not all gloom.

 It can be an amazing opportunity to forge beautiful relationships that you could never have imagined.

I was blessed to find myself in one corridor with very sweet souls with infectious love for each other.  We woke up every day with our chins up and hopeful for a brighter future and determined to go through this necessary phase. We even managed to safely sing happy birthday to one of us on April 2.

We are hoping to be released soon.

From here we are likely to go straight into extreme social distancing operating in the context of a state of emergency.

Now that a state of emergency has been declared, citizens need to know that their rights are necessarily restricted and they must behave accordingly. On the other hand authorities need to know that even in an emergency, rights are not extinguished, but may only be limited, as may be reasonable to do, and the rule of law cannot be suspended and the basic structure, intent and purpose of the constitution undermined. Under no circumstances should the right to human dignity be violated, unduly.

Our country is at a crossroads: we have to change radically or risk being wiped out. We are facing an invisible enemy that does not respect status, race, ethnicity or borders.

The disease is real. Our people can contribute by washing their hands religiously and obeying social distancing. This will allow the disease to die out and hopefully everything will return to normal. If we pull together we will surely succeed.

As I conclude I wish on behalf of all my ‘inmates’ to thank John Carr-Hartley, his family and law firm for initiating a dignified conversation with the law that led to our improved conditions.

 As I always say although law is not a panacea of all ills, it has the potential to do good. Law in the right hands can be a tool of deliverance. In wrong hands it can be an instrument of bondage or even unmitigated disaster.

 I also wish to thank my family, friends and relatives and my colleagues in the bench in Botswana, PNG, Australia, and Freetown who kept on checking on me.

Last but not least I express my heartfelt gratitude to the health personnel, our men and women in uniform for doing their best to help us. The Travelodge team under Mrs Moatshe was excellent and professional in their engagement with us. To them I say thank you. To Mrs Moatshe and her team I wish to say that it is possible that on account of anxiety, boredom and loneliness we may have transgressed the rules in some way. If we did please forgive us. Continue helping our people as you helped us. Lekamoso!

*Key Dingake is a former justice of the High Court. He is currently Judge of the Supreme and National Courts of Papua New Guinea.

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