To the extent possible, Section 184 of the Penal Code should protect the public from the effects of swine flu if it ever hits Botswana. However, an elaborate bureaucratic process would play itself out before that provision in the law can be enforced.
Gaborone West police station commander, Superintendent Bonnie Bareki, says that before they can charge anyone they would first have to ascertain that s/he actually has an infection that can endanger public health.
“Coughing alone cannot provide basis upon which one can be charged. Additionally, we would also need evidence that one has been diagnosed with an infectious disease before charges can be laid,” Bareki says.
A suspect who tests positive has no option of claiming ignorance of Section 184 because, as the G-West police chief says, “ignorance of the law is not an excuse”.
Swine flu (or H1N1 as it has been renamed) continues to spread across the world. At the last count, some 11 000 in 41 countries were infected and 85 have died as a result of contracting the virus.
In its entirety, Section 184 reads: “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.”
One of the acts likely to spread swine flu infection is coughing without covering one’s mouth. When he made his first public warning about swine flu, United States President Barack Obama advised Americans to cover their mouths when coughing. Here at home, the Ministry of Health has issued similar warning. Unfortunately, not everyone (including people who should know better) is in the habit of covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze.
The police, as health authorities, have not adequately seized on what educationists call a ‘teachable moment’ – a moment of educational opportunity, when one is likely to be particularly well-disposed to learning something or particularly responsive to being taught or made aware of something.
Section 184 is another one of those provisions in the law that don’t get as much attention from members of the public and the police as they should.
Section 190, which outlaws fouling the air in public, is another. What is nowadays more commonly known as ‘farting’ in popular language, the Penal Code tediously describes as ‘voluntarily vitiating the air so as to make it noxious to the health of [other] persons.’
At his station, Bareki says that they have never had any problem with people not complying with Section 184 and therefore have never had to enforce it. It is also unheard of for one to be charged with publicly vitiating the air so as to make it noxious to the health of others.
As yet, swine flu, whose alert level on the World Health Organisation is now at five, has yet to hit Africa.
One particular challenge that the continent faces is porous borders and a woefully under-funded public health system. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US says that most people will not have immunity to the disease because it is new and that as a result, the illness may be more severe and widespread as a result.
“In addition, currently there is no vaccine to protect against this novel H1N1 virus. CDC anticipates that there will be more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths associated with this new virus in the coming days and weeks,” says the CDC, which has the world’s largest on-going telephone health survey system.