Had Parliament not moved swiftly to declare a State of Emergency (SoE), Botswana would have been left open to the ravages of the coronavirus – this is the long and short of the Auditor General’s opinion.
In the Auditor General’s report, titled: “The preparedness and response of the country towards the Covid-19 Pandemic and Management of the Relief Fund,” Pulane Letebele stated that public health legal preparedness is essential for a coordinated whole-of government response to any epidemic or pandemic.
“Botswana does not have a specific law that provides legal support to disaster risk management and implementation of related activities. As a result, implementation of disaster risk management actions is supported by several legislations and policies enacted across various ministries and departments.
Thec Auditor General further states: “The occurrence of the Covid-19 pandemic, meant that the primary legal instrument was the Public Health Act, but the Act is limited and does not empower the Director of Health Services to control movement of people, restrict public gatherings and prohibit entry into Botswana by non-citizens.”
Letebele added that as a result, the government relies on the Emergency Powers Act, that empowers the President to make emergency regulations, hence the passing of the Emergency Powers Regulations 2020 to provide public health disaster related guidelines which is why the pandemic was managed through fragmented pieces of legislation and policies which included among others; the Public Health Act Cap and the National Policy on Disaster Management 1996.
Section 26 of the Public Health Act, titled Special Powers, allows the Director of Health Services in writing to authorise persons to assist him or her in carrying out any direction under the act including closing any area, premises or vehicle, close to traffic any road or street and remove by reasonable force those who don’t comply. To some this may spell downright lockdown. The same one imposed on Botswana through the SOE.
Letebele recommended that the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) should review the Public Health Act, to empower the Director of Health Services to effectively address public health emergencies. “Additionally, a policy framework to address epidemic disease outbreaks should be developed and adopted in order to address new and emerging pandemics,” the report read.
MOHW’s response to reviewing the Public Health Act, was that it is ongoing and is expected to be completed in the Financial Year 2021/22.
“After a year with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that emergency preparedness from the legislative framework was not optimal; hence a move to review the Act. On assessment there are recommended amendments, including legislating the Botswana Public Health Institute,” the response read.
The Auditor General’s report said there was no specific law that provides for disaster risk management and implementation of related activities and the Public Health Act was inadequate in this regard. Because of this and other numerous factors and facts, Letebele said it can be said that Botswana was not prepared to successfully respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
One of the reasons why the State of Public Emergency (SOE) was strongly opposed is the excessive power it imbued the president with.
The argument, by politicians and lawyers, was that the Public Health Act has sufficient powers needed to steer the Covid-19 pandemic.
Information from the Auditor General hints at some legislative deficiencies which added to Botswana’s unpreparedness of the ravaging pandemic, calling for the Public Health Act’s amendment.