Sunday trade clampdown unreasonable, Amnesty International says

Amnesty International has called on the Samoan Government not to use the global coronavirus pandemic as a cover for carrying out its wishes, like the steady clampdown on Sunday trading.

The call was made by Amnesty International's Pacific Researcher, Kate Schuetze.

For a month and a half, regular Sunday life in Samoa has been altered little by little by amendments to the state of emergency orders in place to protect the country from any spread of the new, devastating coronavirus COVID-19. 

While Governments around the world have enacted emergency measures to enable their quick action against the virus, Amnesty International is watching closely should they reach too far into basic liberties.

Ms. Schuetze said any or all emergency measures need to be proportionate, necessary and reasonable in the response to the pandemic. And if a measure cannot be directly connected to a public health objective, it may not meet the criteria.

“Say for example you had a protest in Samoa and they stopped that exercise of their right to peacefully protest – if that had nothing to do with creating a health risk the restriction on it would be unlawful under human rights law.

“When you talk about restrictions on how people move around, what they can do, what meetings they can have on a particularly weekday, it’s not like the virus is going to decide on which day to infect people,” she said. 

The state of emergency was made effective from midnight Saturday 21 March, nine weeks ago. Since then, it has been amended 11 times, averaging one amendment a week.

At first, public gatherings of all shapes and sizes on any day of the week were cancelled, in a clear public health driven attempt to quash any spread of disease should it get onto Samoan shores unnoticed. 

The earliest signs of a Government led push to end work on Sundays was the order amendment released April 15: that the inter-island ferries, buses and markets would resume operations with the condition they would not operate on Sunday. Supermarkets were given just three working hours, from 3 until 6pm.

Then two days later, the April 17 amendment went a step further, stating “all businesses must close on Sunday,” and by May 8 swimming on Sundays was included in emergency orders while restrictions on gatherings and hospitality opening hours were relaxed.

On May 14, another amendment was released allowing village councils to resume meetings, but stipulated they may not be conducted on Sundays either. 

“It’s very hard to draw a public health objective and say this is the reason why these restrictions were imposed or that they were necessary under the circumstances,” Ms. Schuetze said.

“Given the context where Samoa has no cases, restrictions on public gatherings on any day of the week could be considered unreasonable and disproportionate because you are not achieving a public health objective. 

“There are ways the Government could look at restrictions on trade but to do it under the banner of the state of emergency, there is no basis in terms of public health that makes sense.”

Business owners in the tourism sector have expressed their own objection to the rules on Sundays, which affect how they serve their guests.

And on Thursday, National Council of Churches (N.C.C.) Secretary, Reverend Ma'auga Motu said while the council has yet to discuss it, he personally would welcome Government moves to close down trade and activity on a Sunday.

“It seemed like Sunday was not a holy day with the markets open,” he told the Samoa Observer.

But when it comes to trade, business must be able to work flexibly, according to President of the Samoa Association of Manufacturers and Exporters Tagaloa Eddie Wilson.

He said while he hasn’t yet sought the full views of the organisation, he personally believes business cannot necessarily stop one day a week.

“Personally I see the merit to respect church hours, however we are in the 21st century now and the world does not stop spinning on Sundays,” he said.

“If given the opportunity, I would advise that Essential Services continue to be opened on Sunday for a reasonable amount of time.

“Manufacturing and export industries will also find from time to time the need to produce goods to meet shipping schedules over the weekends so provided the usual respects for church activities are observed, these activities must proceed as otherwise unnecessary costs or losses will be incurred.”

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