Monday, March 8, 2021

Businesses exploiting loophole in COVID law to hide cases

It has come to Sunday Standard’s attention that some businesses are taking advantage of a loophole in both COVID-19 law and guidelines to hide outbreaks.

Having been passed by a special session of parliament that convened during a national lockdown, the Emergency Powers (COVID-19) (Amendment) (No.4) Regulations 2020 now represents the only national law on the pandemic. However, this law has a serious loophole that some unscrupulous businesses are exploiting. The Regulations don’t require organisations to publicly disclose COVID-19 cases – which disclosure is very important for purposes of empowering members of the public who use such information to decide what places to avoid because they may get infected. In recognition of the latter, some organisations have, in the public interest, been voluntarily publicising their outbreaks. As silent on publicly declaring outbreaks are infection prevention and control guidelines which were issued by the Ministry of Health and Wellness and have been uploaded to the COVID-19 portal. One set of guidelines is for workplaces and the other for retail stores.

What is even worse is that some business establishments are flagrantly violating guidelines that are stipulated in documents from the Ministry of Health and Wellness. The infection prevention and control guidelines clearly state that where a COVID-19 case is either suspected or confirmed in an establishment, such establishment must be closed with immediate effect and disinfected. However, that is not what happened exactly two weeks ago when a franchise restaurant in Gaborone discovered an outbreak involving four employees. It continued operating regardless and at this point (after seven days) “additional cleaning and disinfection is not necessary.” Another incident involves a fast-food restaurant in the city’s outskirts that also continued operating after an outbreak was discovered.  

It has not been possible to get official confirmation from the relevant government offices about these incidents but it wasn’t for lack of trying. All told, we spoke to four different officers in three different ministries (Presidential Affairs and Public Administration, Health and Wellness and Local Government and Rural Development) and a call placed to the office of what would have been the fifth office wasn’t answered.

The latter notwithstanding, it has always been clear that the retail sector is hiding its COVID-19 cases because its public reporting on outbreaks is among the lowest despite the fact that it is the busiest in terms of human traffic. Cresta Jwaneng, which recently closed after a case was discovered, could certainly not be only hotel in that situation. It is clear why businesses (some of which have lost millions of pula as a direct result of the COVID-19 restrictions) would want cut corners to make up for lost business opportunity. Ironically, that works against their own interest because a spike in positive cases will affect businesses the most.

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