Botswana recorded its first case of COVID-19 on 30 March 2020. The Government, through the Ministry of Health and with support from Cooperating Partners, has been implementing a wide range of measures in order to deal with this pandemic. This article assesses the ramifications of these measures on rule of law, human rights and freedoms, government rhetoric, political opportunism as well as the humanitarian situation.
1. Rule of law and emergency measures
Botswana has imposed measures to curb the spread of the virus. The freedoms that have taken the greatest toll are those related to the free movement of individuals, association and assembly. The country is currently under a state of emergency with a raft of measures being enforced to curb the spread and increase containment efforts of the virus. Presently, there are 23 confirmed cases, 14 active, 8 recoveries and one death. A 28-day State of Public Emergency and lockdown came into effect from 2 April 2020. Further on 8 April 2020, the president extended the State of Public Emergency to a six month period, ending 2 October 2020.
2. Rights & Freedoms
For a stable democracy such as Botswana, six months brings in a period of uncertainty. Under the state of emergency, the government has banned gatherings of more than 50 people and the entry of people from countries deemed high-risk; returning citizens are quarantined for 14 days. On 27 April 2020 the President extended lockdown period as follows: Phase 1: Current lockdown period conditions extended by one week (from 1 May to 7 May 2020) during which regulations were drafted for low-risk sectors; Phase 2: Starting from 8 May to 14 May, during which regulations to be relaxed as lockdown lifting takes effect and Phase 3: From 15 May to 22 May, which will be the final week of the lockdown extension. The government further issued legislation on compulsory wearing of face coverings in public places, businesses and common areas of residential buildings from 1 May 2020. Vendors are to sell medical masks to only persons in the medical profession, health workers, persons handling clinical waste or involved in COVID-19 related activities.
3. Political Opportunism
The state of emergency enables the President to issue presidential decrees which have the same force as laws adopted by the Parliament. Fundamental rights, individual rights and duties including freedom of travel and right to property are governed by state of emergency presidential decrees. For instance, it has been decreed that property owners are not to evict people from their homes even if they are not paid rent, depriving property owners’ source of income. In terms of media and communication, media practitioners are exempted from the ban on movement. Parliament proceedings and meetings are being streamed live on national television. The decision to start withholding information on demography and geographical locations of new virus cases to protect the privacy of infected individual has caused concern and creates a climate of unfounded speculations.
4. The Humanitarian Situation
The humanitarian situation is stable with primary concern with regard to COVID-19 being those impacted, especially with regard to employment and education sectors. The first legal measure undertaken was the closure institutions of learning on 23 March 2020. Although the law empowers the President to suspend the education sector, the process is controversial as universities have scientific autonomy and public legal personality. A COVID-19 Wage Support Scheme is in place to provide financial support to employees who become technically unemployed on a temporary basis due to the impact of the Coronavirus. The government established a COVID-19 Pandemic Relief Fund to the tune of P2 billion to stabilise business and sustain the economy of Botswana. Other measure include reduction in bank rate, waiver of penalties, rescheduling of loan repayments and development of post-Corona Economic Stimulus Package. Households without any income receive food relief assistance. However, gender-based violence is likely to increase as many victims of abuse find themselves locked in the homes with their abusers.