Sunday, August 9, 2020

Botswana’s anti-coronavirus laws have long existed, are never enforced

A June 10, 1964 law that Botswana inherited on September 30, 1966 states that ‘any person who unlawfully or negligently does any act which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, is guilty of an offence’

The Minister of Justice, Defence and Security, Lesedi Mmusi, has indicated that a process is in train to promulgate laws to support the government’s fight against coronavirus. What the minister didn’t say is that there are already similar laws that, ironically, are not being enforced and haven’t been for decades.

According to Section 184 of the Penal Code, “any person who unlawfully or negligently does any act which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, is guilty of an offence.” This is a June 10, 1964 law that the new republic of Botswana inherited on September 30, 1966.

To be clear, this law wasn’t made to fight coronavirus – which didn’t exist in 1964, but its enforcement would certainly have helped a great deal in fighting it now. Across cultures (Botswana’s included), the practice of spreading influenza by coughing and sneezing without covering the mouth and nose is very common. It has been conclusively proven that coronavirus spreads in this way. In terms of the ignorance-of-the-law-is-not-an-offence principle in Roman-Dutch law, someone who coughs without covering their mouth contravenes Section 184 and can actually be charged. Doing that would seem overzealous but the law is very clear on this topic.

The law is also as clear in Section 11 of the Botswana Railways Act which says the following: “Except with the written permission of an authorized officer, a person suffering from any infectious or contagious disease or disorder shall not enter or remain, and any person having the custody, charge or care of any such person shall not cause or permit him to enter or remain, upon the railway, and any person who contravenes this bye-law shall be guilty of an offence.” It goes farther to say that any person suffering as described above “and any person having the custody, charge or care of such person, may be removed from the railway by or under the directions of an authorized officer and shall be liable to the Botswana Railways for the cost of disinfecting Botswana Railways’ premises and any vehicle in or on which such person shall have been, and making good any other damage to the property of Botswana Railways resulting from the contravention of these bye-laws.”

The BR Act was made in 1987 but there has never been a process for ensuring that people suffering from infectious diseases don’t board passenger trains. It is fair to assume that if a train carries 500 passengers in winter, at least (conservative estimate) 50 of them would have influenza. Some of them spread influenza by coughing and sneezing without the covering the mouth and nose and no action is taken against them.

Food safety and hygiene are very important coronavirus control measures and as this diseases threatens to attack Botswana, the government has banned the provision of food to mourners at funerals. Through the agency of the writer, Sunday Standard has borne witness to a highly unusual situation in which the Botswana Police Service and the Lobatse Town Council failed to enforce provisions of both the Public Health Act and the Food Control Act.

In terms of the Public Health Act, the police are empowered to seize food that is unfit for public consumption. It was on such basis that in 2012, Sunday Standard alerted the Woodhall Police Station in Lobatse about the sale of waste oil by a Greek shopkeeper who had run a restaurant across the border in South Africa. The oil used to fry fast food at that restaurant was decanted into two-litre bottles bearing labelling of an otherwise reputable South African food company and sold at P14 at a kiosk in Woodhall Two. The oil was discoloured from apparent repeated use and appeared to have undergone some kind of rudimentary refining because it contained neither sludge nor left-over food pieces. However, when heated, the oil foamed up, rising to the brim of the pan and led to some customers returning it. The kiosk had no money-back guarantee for faulty goods and customers were instead given fruit and vegetables that were going bad and even then, only when the owner was around to give his authority

However, even after being alerted, the Woodhall Police Station didn’t investigate the matter, instead referring Sunday Standard to the bye-law unit in the Lobatse Town Council. The unit had not responded four days later because the oil was still on sale. Upon learning of Sunday Standard’s interest in the matter, the shopkeeper put up a sign that said “Used oil for animal consumption”, which didn’t answer the question: who feeds their domestic animals any kind of cooking oil?

Both the Lobatse police and Town Council failed to discharge their responsibilities in terms of the Food Control Act which prohibits the sale of food that is unfit for human consumption. Such food “has in or upon it any poisonous or harmful substance, or consists in whole or in part of any filthy, dirty, tainted, putrid, rotten, decomposed, or diseased substance or foreign matter.” A global law enforcement challenge especially in the Third World, use of recycled cooking oil poses a serious health risk. One theory is that when heated over a certain temperature the chemical makeup of this oil changes into another kind of fat that is very hard to digest and because it stays in the body for a long time. In a study done by the Oil Crops Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, it was found that such oil may contain waste antibiotics or aflatoxins, a highly toxic substance that could cause cancer. In one Chinese province, the Food and Drug Bureau has had to set up a hotline to process citizens’ complaints about the use of drainage oil by restaurants.

The Food Control Act also establishes the National Food Control Board which is chaired by the Director of Health Services in the Ministry of Health. Among others, the functions of this Board are the promotion and protection of personal and public health by ensuring the provision of safe and wholesome food to consumers.

With Botswana having imported these health laws from overseas, the most obvious thing to close the cultural information gap that exists would be concerted public health education before enforcement. However, there is no such education, especially at primary schools where personal hygiene habits are formed.

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