CHAPTER One Foundation executive director Linda Kasonde says it is unfair to penalise poor Zambians for not being able to afford a face mask when politicians continue flouting COVID-19 health regulations.

And Kasonde says it is unfortunate that COVID-19 regulations regarding the right to freedom of assembly and movement are being applied selectively to favour those in authority.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Commission (HRC) spokesperson Mwelwa Muleya says public health regulations and guidelines must be applied to everyone, regardless of their status, because COVID-19 is not selective.

The two were speaking when they featured on a Chapter One Foundation-sponsored programme on Diamond TV, Friday, held under the topic “Human Rights during COVID-19”.

Kasonde said it was unfortunate that the COVID-19 pandemic regulations regarding the right to freedom of assembly and movement were being applied selectively to favour those who were in authority.

She added that those in authority needed to ensure that laws were applied uniformly so that everyone would abide by them.

“The problems that we are seeing over the application of the COVID-19 pandemic regulations with regard to the right of freedom of assembly and movement are the same problems we are seeing with the administration of the Public Order Act. That it’s being applied selectively to favour those, who are in authority, and we think that’s very unfortunate. The government also needs to be concerned about this because when you apply law selectively, people start to ignore them and say, ‘after all, so and so is doing this.’ It’s in the interest of the people in authority to make sure that the laws are applied uniformly so that everyone will abide by them and everyone will respect the regulations,” Kasonde said.

On the warning by the Zambia Police Service that those without masks would be fined K750 or be arrested and taken to court, Kasonde, a former Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) president, said it was unfair to penalise a person for not being able to afford a mask, adding that it was not an offence to be poor.

“We should also be careful not to criminalise poor people. It should not be an offence to be poor. So, if you don’t have that K750, you are going to go to jail? Meanwhile, that might be pocket change for somebody else. Our jails also are already overcrowded! So, we need to think carefully about the measures we put in place to try and curb the pandemic. Regarding this lady in the market, it’s unfair to be able to penalise somebody for not being able to afford something,” she argued.

And Kasonde said that there were actually no regulations in SIs, 21 and 22 of 2020 on mask-wearing.

She, therefore, urged government to look into the said regulations and ensure that they were clear.

“There are actually no regulations in the two SI’s, 21 and 22 [of 2020] on mask-wearing as far as I am aware. Also, the problem is that when you make any policy or any law, you need to do so always from a human rights perspective. We are not saying that government should not put in place measures to keep everybody safe, but they need to do this in line with the law. The thing with law is that it must be clear. Everybody should be able to refer to a law, read it and be able to see that, ‘yes, this is what it says.’ But if it doesn’t say, ‘wear masks’ and you get arrested for not wearing a mask, that’s a problem and a violation of the law,” Kasonde said.

“So, we urge the government to look again at some of these regulations and make sure that they are clearer. If you are going to make these regulations, and you should because people should wear masks to keep safe, make those regulations clear. But in addition, provide access to everyone to be able to access clean water, a mask or soap to protect them from COVID-19.”

Kasonde further observed that some countries had been successful in curbing COVID-19 as their governments had built public confidence in their leadership.

She, however, added that if leaders did not adhere to the regulations that everyone else was supposed to abide by, then people would think COVID-19 was a hoax.

“This is a leadership issue as much as it is a health issue. In countries where they have been successful in managing to curb the virus is because the governments there have built public confidence in their leadership. So, people are following what their leaders are saying because their leaders are leading by example. And if you don’t have your leaders adhering to the regulations that everybody else is supposed to abide by, then you will have a situation where people start not to believe that there is COVID-19 out there, ‘after all these people are walking around in huge crowds’,” said Kasonde.

“That in itself is a health risk because you have people who don’t believe the virus exists. So, all of us, right from the top to the bottom, should adhere to the scientific, medical advice that is being given to us. Let’s all stay safe, mask-up, social distancing and wash hands.”

Meanwhile, Muleya insisted that it was a human rights violation to apply laws selectively.

He observed that for public gatherings, politicians were not only endangering themselves, but the lives of their supporters as they were not immune to contracting COVID-19.

“The right to equal protection of the law is a fundamental human rights principle. Therefore, it’s a human rights violation to apply the laws selectively or to discriminate in terms of application of the laws. Now, the difference between the restriction related to political gatherings in enforcement of the Public Order Act and the public health regulation is that Coronavirus does not select or discriminate. If it’s to do with public gatherings, that transmission can take place because of lack of adherence to the fundamental principles of social distancing. Therefore, politicians, who do that are gravely endangering the lives of their supporters, followers, including themselves. Because they are not immune to contracting Coronavirus as we have witnessed in the recent past. So, it’s very important that there is exemplary leadership in this manner because supporters follow leaders,” Muleya said.

He added that public health regulations and guidelines must be applied to everyone regardless of their status as COVID-19 did not select or discriminate.

“So, there should be no discriminatory application of the public health regulations and guidelines. The enforcement of the public health regulations and guidelines must be applied to everyone regardless of their status because the virus does not select. It does not know the status of any individual, it affects everyone. So, in order to contain this pandemic, there is need for maximum responsibility across the board. There should be leadership at all levels,” he urged.

He further said government had an obligation to safeguard public health and provide personal protective equipments not only to the frontline workers, but also to vulnerable members of society.

“There is need for a balancing act under this situation. Government has an obligation to safeguard public health. It has also an obligation to provide for basic needs, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at all LEVELS, not only among the frontline workers, but among the vulnerable members of society who are badly hit by the economic situation. The COVID-19 situation has worsened the standard of living for the majority of Zambians. Also, there should be understanding in terms of enforcing these regulations. There should be a human rights-based approach of engaging members of the public and those who are violating these regulations,” said Muleya.

He said there was need for people to take maximum personal responsibility for their health and those around them as COVID-19 was a public health emergency.

Muleya further said whatever action law enforcement officers take should be legal, necessary and proportionate, adding that there should be no violation of human rights.