Due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the government’s decision to close schools and the banning of all sports events and large public gatherings for the next fifteen days. The decision was made after the government has confirmed a total of five cases on Monday, March 16, 2020. Going forward, the government is expected to take measures, which will have an adverse effect on the constitutional and legislative rights of health professionals, customs officers and the general public. In this article, I will discuss some of the possible limitations on the rights of these people and possible measures that the government is entitled to take in case of disobedience.
Duties and Limitations Associated with COVID-19
In relation to the outbreak of COVID-19, different segments of the society are duty bound to assist in preventing the spread of the disease. Specifically, the duties on health professionals, customs officers and individual citizens are briefly explained below.
Duties of Health Professionals
Duty to report
Any health professional who happens to know the existence of COVID-19 in his vicinity shall have the duty to report immediately to the nearest health service institution. The institution, which has received such report, shall take the necessary measures and report it to public health emergency control body.
Duty to Serve
It is the constitutional right of the people not to be required to perform forced or compulsory labour. However, this shall not entitle a person to refuse service in case of emergency or calamity threating the life or well being of the community. Hence, the government shall have the power to force professionals, in the case of COVID-19, mainly health professionals to perform their duty.
Duty to Quarantine
If a health professional identifies or suspects a COVID-19 carrier, he/she is required to quarantine the person infected or suspected for a limited period of time.
Duty to Check and Report
Passengers coming to or leaving Ethiopia shall be obliged to take vaccination for international passengers. A customs officer is required to request for any passenger a certificate for that effect and check if the passenger has the required vaccination in accordance with international public health requirements adopted by Ethiopia.
The government might decide to prohibit people coming from an epidemic area from entry into the country. Officers, at any port of entry, are duty bound to report all suspected passengers of COVID-19.
Duty to Cooperate
If a person is suspected of COVID-19, he/she is duty bound to cooperate for medical examination, treatment and vaccination.
Duty as a Parent
Parents or guardians are duty bound to cause the vaccination of children for the protection of COVID-19.
Limitations on Freedom of Religion
It is well noted that freedom of religion is a constitutionally guaranteed right. However, it is not without limitations. Freedom to express or manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety or public health. Hence, the government could be entitled to limit the freedom of religion in order to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19. This might include prohibition against religious gatherings.
The Power of the Government
Decree a State of Emergency
As a result of COVID-19 outbreak, the government is entitled to decree a state of emergency. The FDRE Constitution entitles the Council of Ministers to decree a state of emergency should there be a natural disaster or an epidemic occur which in effect endangers the constitutional order and which cannot be controlled by the regular law enforcement agencies and personnel. Similarly, regional governments are empowered to decree state-wide state of emergency should a natural disaster or an epidemic occur in that specific region.
During the state of emergency, the Council of Ministers is empowered to suspend political and democratic rights to the extent necessary to avert the spread of the virus. The government can suspend all democratic and political rights except the right to protection against cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right not to be held in slavery or servitude, trafficking human beings and forced labour. The exception of forced labour doesn’t include professionals involved in fighting this epidemic.
Failure to Report or Quarantine by a Health Professional
Disregarding his/her obligations to report COVID-19 cases and quarantine, if a health professional violates his/her duty and fails to report or quarantine, he/she will be punishable with imprisonment of not exceeding six months or fine of not exceeding three thousand birr (ETB 3,000) or with both. If, however, the failure could be classified as a criminal act as per the Criminal Code of Ethiopia and a higher penalty is provided in the Criminal Code, the penalty under the Criminal Code prevails.
Intentionally Spreading COVID-19
If an individual internationally spreads or transmits an epidemic like that of COVID-19, that person will be punished with rigorous imprisonment ranging up to twenty years. If the consequence is serious it could lead to life imprisonment or death penalty. However, if the crime is committed negligently, with no proof of intent, the punishment will be simple imprisonment.
Infringement of Preventive and Protective Measures
The government might put in place different measures and protocols in place in order to fight the spread of COVID-19. If a person intentionally disregards the measures prescribed by law for the prevention or limit of COVID-19, is punishable with simple imprisonment not exceeding two years, or fine. If the same crime is committed negligently, the punishment shall be simple imprisonment not exceeding six months or fine not exceeding three thousand birr (ETB 3,000).
Creation of Distress
Within these couple of days since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Ethiopia, we have noticed unethical acts by some traders who tried to create an artificial shortage of items necessary to fight and prevent COVID-19. This is an anti-commercial act and most of all, a crime committed against human health. The Criminal Code of Ethiopia states that if a person directly or indirectly creates a grave state of misery epidemic or distress especially destroying or preventing the transport or distribution of foodstuffs or provisions or remedies or products necessary to the life or health of man is punishable with rigorous imprisonment up to fifteen years. If the crime is committed for gain, the punishment shall be rigorous imprisonment not exceeding twenty years and fine not exceeding one hundred thousand birr (ETB 100,000).
Refusing to Provide Health Service
In addition to the exclusion from the realm of protection against compulsory and forced labour, if a health professional refuses to provide his services in a case of serious need, whether from indifference, selfishness, cupidity, hatred or contempt or any other similar motive, is punishable with fine. If the crime is repeated he/she is punishable with simple imprisonment not exceeding six months.
Petty Offense Against Public Health
If a person, apart from what is mentioned above, contravenes the directives of the Ministry of Health regarding the prevention, declaration, treatment and control of COVID-19, that person is punishable with fine or arrest.