By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 13, 2021
I left Trinidad and Tobago on March 16, 2020, a few days before the borders were closed to citizens and visitors alike. I was on the verge of departing for a ten-day visit to India, at the invitation of the Indian government as a part of its Academic Visitors Programme for distinguished scholars.
Three days before my planned departure, I cancelled my trip, with the blessings of the Indian High Commissioner of T&T, for fear that I might be trapped in India while the pandemic raged.
I have not returned to my homeland since because of the lockdown of the national borders. I have been told that I, a citizen of T&T, must apply for permission to enter my own country. I have been reluctant to do so since it strikes me as being antithetical to everything that inheres in my rights as a citizen. A citizen does not apply for permission to return to the land in which he or she was born.
I understand there is a pandemic and the national Government must do everything in its power to protect the lives of all its citizens, those at home and those abroad. However, I take strong objection to my having to secure permission from the Minister of National Security to return to my native ground. Since the Minister of National Security did not give me permission to be a citizen (that being part of an inalienable right as a citizen), he or his Government cannot give or take that right away from me. The more relevant question is under what circumstances am I allowed to enjoy my natural rights?
The Government could not anticipate the pandemic and had to act quickly to secure the safety of its citizens, but that was over a year ago. During that period, the Government had enough time to organise an orderly arrangement for citizens to enjoy their status as citizens, including their fundamental right to travel to and from their countries, albeit with restrictions.
This is why I was sympathetic with Dr Karen Sohan, former chief of staff at the Mt Hope Women’s Hospital, who claimed she was left stranded in the US for six months before she was allowed to return home. When she returned, she sued the Minister of Health for failing to respond to her request to obtain the statistics on “repatriated nationals who tested positive for Covid-19” (Express, April 3).
Sohan was interested in the statistic because of the “negative experience” she underwent in being repatriated and undergoing the “mandatory quarantine period”. The document noted the current limited border travel policy would only be sensible if the statistics she was seeking showed that returning nationals accounted for a large number of Covid-19-positive cases. Since Venezuelans who transgress our borders are likely to bring in the virus, one wonders if they, as refugees, have more legal rights than Sohan and me.
Many developed countries are toying with the idea of a “vaccine passport” or a “Covid-status passport” that would allow its citizens to travel internationally and, in some cases, nationally. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced a traffic light system for foreign destinations, grading them on their record on vaccines, the prevalence of new variants and infection rates. He felt it was “right for the government to develop a usable system to enable foreign travel and access to UK venues”. (Financial Times, April 6)
The United States, one of the countries most devastated by the Covid-19 virus, is giving serious consideration to opening up its borders. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises: “Americans who are fully vaccinated against coronavirus can travel ‘at low risk to themselves’, both within the United States and internationally, but they must continue to take precautions like wearing masks in public to avoid possibly spreading the virus to others.” (The New York Times, April 3)
The notion that rules or laws made during a pandemic should remain indefinitely or the notion that the sovereign is above the law—“he creates law for others and so imposes legal duties or ‘limitations’ upon them whereas he is said himself to be legally unlimited and illimitable”—is unacceptable. HLA Hart reminds us, “The acceptance of a rule by society at one moment does not guarantee its continued existence. There may be a revolution: the society may cease to accept the rule.” (The Concept of Law)
Recently, the number of Covid-19 cases has soared. I wonder if returning nationals are to be blamed for this rise in cases. Two weeks ago, I received my second Moderna Covid-19 vaccine. I wonder if I present a greater danger to the public health than members of Parliament who have not been vaccinated. Why should I be prevented from returning to my country when those who make the laws are more likely to spread the disease than me? A recent CDC study suggested that it may be a rare event that vaccinated people “may transmit the virus to others”.
The Government should outline a policy to allow citizens to return to their country once it has defined an orderly schedule of what qualifies them to return and what must be done when they return.
Whatever it does, the Government should assert/re-emphasise the right of citizens to travel abroad and return home, even though there will be restrictions. Such freedom is integral to our fundamental rights as citizens. It cannot be left to the whims and fancies of Cabinet members or a minister of national security.
It may be selfish, but I wouldn’t like to die in a foreign land without ever seeing the majestic beauty of the Northern Range again.