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The Caribbean's ‘double standard’ on the enforcement of COVID-19 protocols

Screenshot of the introductory section of Trinidad and Tobago's Public Health Regulations, 2020, as they relate to COVID-19.

Across the Caribbean, the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gap of social inequity — including the various treatments of citizens who flout safety regulations.

In Trinidad and Tobago, COVID-19 restrictions should apply to everyone, but several recent instances reveal a stark difference in the way police regulate violations depending on class and status.

Based on updated public health ordinances, authorities prohibit public gatherings of more than five people, and face coverings and physical distancing are required.

Yet, at a birthday party with over 20 guests at a communal pool area at Bayside Towers, an upscale residential high-rise, no one wore masks. The property managers reportedly asked attendees several times to comply with the COVID-19 protocols; when the guests refused, they called the police and advised them as such. By the time officers arrived, the few remaining guests got off with a warning, despite the fact that they breached several public health ordinance violations, including being in a public pool for recreational purposes, and failure to social distance or wear face masks.

The consequences of not adhering to these safety requirements involve hefty fines and possible imprisonment for up to three days.

The loophole, according to Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith, appeared to be that although the gathering was in a common area, the property itself is private — a rationale that did not go over well with social media users who accused law enforcement of perpetuating a double standard when it comes to the enforcement of COVID-19 regulations.

Back in April, under similar public health ordinance guidelines, police detained 27 youth  — many of them minors — who were congregating in larger groups than was allowed in the low-income community of Sea Lots. A video showing police making the group lie on their stomachs on a rocky beach and apologise to Griffith as guns were trained on them, went viral.

Compounding the issue was Griffith's apparent backpedaling on statements he made in April, when he claimed the police had the authority to stop house parties. The Bayside pool party, he said, was a “gray area,” suggesting that there needs to be clarification on what defines a private and public space.

Opposition Minister of Parliament Dinesh Rambally expressed support for Griffith, calling the legislation itself “vague, uncertain and imprecise.” This, he maintained, leads to arbitrary and inequitable enforcement.

While Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh confirmed that the existing regulations “more or less speak to public spaces,” he added, “We don't need a constitutional argument to tell people that how you conduct yourselves in your private premises will capsize the whole thing.”

In a post at Wired868, Lasana Liburd called out the hypocrisy of it:

Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith tried to turn the table on persons critical of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service’s handling of a pool party in Bayside Towers, by suggesting that they were the ones with a ‘hang-up’ on race and class—and not his lawmen. […]

Nobody was charged, although the public health ordinance carries a TT$1,000 fine [US$148)] for failure to wear masks — even if it is in your own vehicle alongside a single family member.

To date, the TTPS has charged 179 persons for failure to wear masks. So […] did the police choose not to hold someone accountable at Bayside Towers because it is an affluent neighbourhood?

Griffith noted that under his leadership, the TTPS has conducted raids in affluent areas as proof that he was above bias.

At a press conference, however, one journalist questioned why the police visit to Bayside wasn't filmed and uploaded to social media by the TTPS when other raids had. Griffith admonished the media for “nitpicking.”

When members of the media persisted, Griffith replied that he did not have the details of what happened, but that investigations were continuing. He also said that some of the guests may not have been Trinidad and Tobago nationals and that the police would check their documentation.

Media outlet Wired868, however, scoffed at the attempt to reframe the issue:

Griffith did not explain why the deportation of Venezuelan refugees — whose reason for being at the Bayside Towers event is uncertain — might be considered a suitable response to an arrogant, reckless Bayside resident’s failure to show due consideration to COVID-19 regulation.

On Facebook, Ian Y. Dass echoed similar sentiments:

So let me get this straight…

A party with 40 persons at Bayside Towers is not a breach of the public health ordinance because it's in private property. I'm pretty sure all these persons aren't living under the same roof. And I'm pretty sure they will be mingling with the public at some point in the near future.

Meanwhile, if a family who lives in the same house is seen in their PRIVATE vehicles not wearing masks, they get charged $1000 (inclusive of children over the age of 8).
Make. It. Make. Sense.

You see, I have no problem with there being laws in place to help reduce the spread of the virus. BUT…these laws should be ACROSS THE BOARD. I guess in sweet T&T, some are above the law. Injustice and unfairness in big daylight. Right in front we eyes.

But we like it so.

The memes and spoofs were quick in coming, but underneath it all, social media users were well-aware of the gravity of the issue, underscored by another incident in which a young woman claimed that the legislation — which deems it an offence to “be found at or in any beach […] or similar body of water” — doesn't apply to her or her family because they are on their “private” property. Private beaches do not exist in Trinidad and Tobago.

Even though COVID-19 regulations differ throughout the Caribbean, scenarios like these have been playing out in comparable ways.

In Jamaica, social media erupted after superstar athlete Usain Bolt celebrated his birthday by throwing a large party on August 21. Event videos showed little regard for Jamaica's COVID-19 protocols, but weeks later, police confirmed that Bolt had received a permit. Authorities are, however, still waiting to hear whether several high-profile guests who had arrived from overseas to attend the party adhered to the required quarantine protocols upon their arrival.

The government has already said that Bolt will not receive any special treatment, and investigations are continuing into possible breaches of the country's Quarantine Act.

Jamaica, like Trinidad and Tobago, is currently experiencing community spread, and government officials continue to review and update COVID-19 protocols as required, through amendments to the Disaster Risk Management Act, which are gazetted in parliament.

Three days after the party, Bolt tested positive for COVID-19, forcing several of his guests into quarantine themselves.

Jamaica is a popular destination for celebrity visitors. Pop icon Madonna and her entourage arrived during the pandemic to celebrate her 62nd birthday. Videos and photos posted on social media showed that although the birthday party was held outdoors, guests did not adhere to social distancing or mask-wearing.

On the other hand, with case numbers rising, Jamaican police have arrested several citizens for not wearing masks in public places. On September 1, several young men were stopped in the busy Half Way Tree area of Kingston — actions that are now being questioned by some lawyers, since — unlike Trinidad and Tobago — public safety measures like mask wearing have not been passed into law, but are recommendations.

However, Jamaica's Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr. Christopher Tufton, has made it clear that fines of up to a million Jamaican dollars (just under seven thousand US dollars) or six months imprisonment can be imposed on those who defy COVID-19 protocols.

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