THE High Court has refused the granting of an interim injunction sought by three unions against measures taken by the government to restrict access to public places for individuals who have not been vaccinated or show evidence of being COVID-19-free. Taking centre stage on the issue is the concept of the public interest, taken here to mean measures taken by the government to ensure the welfare and well-being of the general population and, for that matter, the society as a whole.
Several repercussions flow from that High Court decision. The first and perhaps more significant, is that the government’s vaccination policy requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test before entry to designated public spaces will continue until such time that the matter is substantively heard and determined. This ruling clears the way for the government to continue to aggressively pursue its vaccination programme, especially in light of an apparent surge in the number of COVID-19 infections, and regrettably, avoidable deaths.
A second point worthy of noting is what the court determined as a duty of the state to take steps to avert the spread of the virus in the public interest. It was noted that on the basis of a balance of convenience, the interest of the wider public far outweighs the granting of the interim injunction sought by the unions. It is that consideration which appeared to have tilted the scales in favour of the court not exercising its discretion against the COVID-19 measures taken by the PPP/C administration.
It should be recalled that a few unions representing teachers, nurses and other categories of public servants had asked the court to grant interim injunctive relief and declarations against the state by lifting the measures which they felt are ‘harsh’ and which, in their opinion, are in violation of the constitutional rights of individuals as they relate to the element of ‘choice.’ The three unions are the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU), the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) and the umbrella organisation encompassing these two unions, the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC).
Instructively, the High Court in its ruling found that the world has been severely impacted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and that governments throughout the world have employed various measures to contain and reduce the spread of the disease, including mandatory lockdowns, quarantine, curfews and the wearing of masks.
The fact is that Guyana is not unique in terms of the measures it has taken to curb the disease and certainly not the most harsh in so far as the measures implemented elsewhere in the world. As to why the three unions have embarked on such a course of action to stymie the government’s efforts to safeguard the nation’s health against the deadly COVID virus is, to say the least, mind-boggling. One cannot, however, ignore the fact that all of the unions that are party to the court action are known to have taken positions not dissimilar to that of the opposition APNU+AFC Coalition on the issue of the COVID-19 vaccines and, for that matter, on other extraneous issues which have little if any bearing on industrial relations.
Such convergence of thinking on the part of the three unions and the political opposition raises more questions than answers. Could it be a case of using the trade union movement to mount a platform of opposition to the government with a view to obstruct the administration from its several policy initiatives to foster the national good as in the case regarding its stance on the vaccination issue? Have the unions in question bought into a false narrative of the APNU+AFC Coalition regarding the ‘legitimacy’ of the PPP/C administration, an allegation that has become discredited and wholly lacking in substance?
Whatever it is, the recourse of the three unions to seek an order from the court to injunct the government is at best short-sighted and certainly not in the best national interest. The fact that the High Court has so determined is refreshing in its own right, even though a date is still to be fixed for a substantive hearing of the matter.
The debate as to what is meant by the term ‘national interest’ will continue, and as mentioned by Justice Corbin-Lincoln in her ruling, ‘the court is not deaf to the debate raging across the world, with respect to the ethicality and effectiveness of mandatory vaccination.’ And while everything seems to suggest that vaccine hesitancy is a big issue in Guyana, the Government of Guyana is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that public health and by extension the public interest is a top national priority.
The government for its part is not relenting on its insistence that all adults show proof of being vaccinated or being COVID-19-free before entering public spaces, a move now being emulated by private sector organisations. And with good reason. If there is one issue that cannot be left to chance it is the health and safety of the Guyanese people. In this regard, full credit must be given to the PPP/C administration for standing firm on the issue of the nation’s health, despite resistance from a misguided few.