(Written on 22 March. Last Update on 23 March)
News reached the world on December 31 last year that in China’s Wuhan port city there were cases of “unusual pneumonia”. The Coronavirus or COVID-19 was unknown then.
We all thought it was insignificant and brief.
We were all wrong.
And Parliaments have not been spared either.
As of March 21, COVID-19 has killed at least 11,000 people and infected more than 275,000 worldwide. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the virus a global pandemic.
What is Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)?
The WHO has important information on what the disease is, how it is spread, and how to prevent it. It indicates on its website:
Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus.
Most people infected with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.
The best way to prevent and slow down transmission is be well informed about the COVID-19 virus, the disease it causes and how it spreads. Protect yourself and others from infection by washing your hands or using an alcohol based rub frequently and not touching your face.
The COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so it’s important that you also practice respiratory etiquette (for example, by coughing into a flexed elbow).
At this time, there are no specific vaccines or treatments for COVID-19. However, there are many ongoing clinical trials evaluating potential treatments. WHO will continue to provide updated information as soon as clinical findings become available.
Situation report on parliaments around the world
The COVID-19 situation is rapidly unfolding around the world. According to WHO’s Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report –61, dated 21 March, there are 266, 073 confirmed cases and 11, 184 deaths. The African region has 572 confirmed cases and 12 deaths. The WHO has given the pandemic a risk assessment at the global level of very high.
This is how the situation is in regard to parliaments.
On 13 March, the Speaker of the National Assembly of Kenya and the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Service Commission issued Parliament of Kenya-Coronavirus Guidelines Circular. The document titled Guidelines Consequent on the Declaration of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) as a Global Health Pandemic and the Confirmation of a Case of Coronavirus Infection in Kenya, was addressed to all Members of Parliament and Staff of Parliament and was disseminated to the public. The Guidelines ordered a raft of quick measures to address the pandemic. All foreign travel by members and staff of Parliament were suspended. Conferences, retreats, workshops and other similar events of Parliament were to be held within the precincts of Parliament in Nairobi. Visits to Parliament by schools, colleges and other groups were suspended. Also, entry of any other visitors into Parliament were to be restricted. Further, all committees were encouraged to defer their sittings and visits outside the precincts of Parliament.
The Guidelines ordered that official engagements that had been scheduled to be held within the precincts of Parliament in the next thirty days would be stand deferred until further notice.
Also, Members of Parliament and staff who, within the past fourteen (14) days (that was as from 1 March) had returned into the country from a destination in which cases of corona virus infection had been reported were advised to take particular precautionary measures.
The Guidelines also issued preventive measures to be observed by Members of Parliament and Staff in line with the recommendations of the WHO and the Ministry of Health.
The National Assembly was scheduled to have its sittings on Tuesday, 10 March; Wednesday, 11 March; and Thursday, 12 March. The House was then scheduled to adjourn on Thursday, 12 March for a short recess according to its parliamentary calendar. However, the House had to adjourn two days earlier.
On Tuesday, 10 March, the Leader of Majority Party, Hon. Aden Duale moved the following Motion of Adjournment of the House:
THAT, AWARE THAT the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern;
FURTHER AWARE THAT,the Government, upon confirmation of Coronavirus cases in the country, has taken various measures aimed at containing the spread of the disease, including suspension of learning in all educational institutions and minimizing attendance to various gatherings and that all sections of our society including the National Assembly ought to play their role in stopping further spread of the disease;
NOTING THAT,public health authorities around the world are also taking unprecedented measures to contain the spread of the disease;
DEEPLY CONCERNED THAT,this pandemic, which is said to have no known cure, has spread to many countries with the potential of affecting a large percentage of the world’s population since the impact of the virus is still unfolding;
(a) THAT, notwithstanding the approved Calendar of the House (Regular Sessions) for the Fourth Session (2020), the House adjourns its Sittings from Wednesday, 18th March 2020 until Tuesday, 14th April 2020 at 2.30 pm.
(b) THAT, during the period of the adjournment, the Parliamentary Service Commission institutes appropriate measures to enable the House to sit upon reconvening taking cognisance of the public health emergency;
(c) THAT, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Orders 41 and 42 relating to reading and relaying of Messages from the Senate and from the President, during the period of the adjournment, upon receipt of any name of a person nominated for appointment to a State office from the President, or upon receipt of any Message from the Senate, the Speaker shall forthwith refer such Message to the relevant Committee for consideration, without having to recall the House; and,
(d) THAT, the Calendar of the House (Regular Sessions) for the Fourth Session (2020), be hereby altered accordingly.
Consequently, the National Assembly of Kenya resolved to adjourn until Tuesday, 14th April 2020, at 2.30 p.m.
The Senate, in their sitting, had a similar Motion by the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Kipchumba Murkomen. Thus, it also resolved to adjourn its Plenary sittings to reconvene on 31 March, 2020 at 2.30p.m. and to alter its Calendar accordingly. In Senate’s Communication from the Chair, the Speaker directed that, “the sittings of the Committees also shall be suspended for a period of two weeks after which further directions will be given by the Speaker.”
The Staff of Parliament were also encouraged to work remotely from their homes as the situation is being monitored. An Ad hoc Committee has also been formed to address all the issues related to the COVID-19.
The WHO, as of March 20, reported that Kenya has 7 confirmed cases and zero deaths. As of March 22, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Hon. Mutahi Kagwe, announced an additional 8 confirmed cases, bringing the number of confirmed cases in Kenya at 15.
East African Legislative Assembly (EALA)
The East African Legislative Assembly (EALA), based in Arusha, Tanzania, has called off its 4th Meeting of the 3rd Session of the 4th Assembly which was scheduled to commence on March 18, 2020. The WHO, as of March 20, reported that Tanzania has 6 confirmed cases and zero deaths.
“Given the nature of the Assembly’s work which involves travel and meetings, there is ample evidence that such plenary gathering can increase the risk of transmission of the COVID-19”, EALA Speaker, Rt Hon Ngoga K. Martin said.
Meanwhile, each EALA Chapter shall remain in its own Partner State and engage with various stakeholders in-country.
As of Thursday, 19 March 2020, the Ugandan Parliament continued to transact its business.
A week ago, the Nile Post reported that seven Ugandan legislators had recently returned from South Korea and that Hon. Anthony Akol had been expelled from Parliament so that he could self-quarantine himself. Legislators had called for the adjournment of parliamentary sittings.
The Ugandan Parliament has reported that US based Professor Sarfaraz Khan Niazi has donated a patent to Uganda for the manufacture of a sanitiser that instantly kills the coronavirus. Two Ugandan scientists were developing a sanitiser using the patent.
Ugandan Speaker, Hon. Rebecca Kadaga, said on March 17 that Uganda’s Parliamentary Commission would hold an emergency meeting to discuss how to manage operations of the institution in current coronavirus situation.
Uganda has one confirmed case of Coronavirus and zero deaths.
The Tanzanian Parliament, through its Speaker, Hon. Job Ndugai, has released a press briefing in regard to the coronavirus titled Mwongozo wa Njia zitakazotumiwa na Bunge katika Kujikinga na Maambukizi ya Ugonjwa wa Corona. The Tanzanian Parliament has made available thermo scanners and hand sanitizers within the precincts of parliament, allowed Committees’ domestic activities but discouraged to tour places with high density of people, and allowed Committee sittings within the precincts of parliament but stakeholders should be few particularly those directly related to the purpose of the meeting.
Further, the scheduled parliamentary sitting on March 31 will continue as scheduled unless indicated otherwise.
Also, the Tanzanian Parliament has suspended foreign travels, foreign travel for medical treatment, foreign training of MPs and staff, and visitor access.
South African Parliament
The National Assembly of South Africa suspended its business until further notice on Wednesday, 18 March. The Speaker stated:
Please note, as indicated previously, that the business of the National Assembly will be suspended until further notice. I would like to encourage members to continue taking personal precautions and to stay informed during the coming weeks. People, we look to you and our people look specifically to you as the first 400 citizens of the country for leadership.
The Parliament of South Africa, in its press release dated 21 March, stated: “As Parliament is busy processing legislation that will ensure universal access to health care for all, we must all work together, through individual and collective efforts, to turn the tide against this pandemic.” It also indicated: “Parliament has already taken active steps to stop the spread of this virus by scaling down on its work to limit person-to-person contact in order to curb possible infections and the spread of the virus.”
The WHO, as of March 20, reported that South Africa has 205 confirmed cases and reported zero deaths.
The UK Parliament
The UK Parliament, from information on its website dated 16th March 2020, indicated that it would stop all non-essential visitor access to both Houses from Tuesday 17 March. Its Westminster Hall debates (which are platforms for MPs to raise local or national issues and receive a response from a government minister) were suspended from Friday 20 March. However, the UK Parliament continues to sit, indicating that “steps have been taken to allow Parliament to continue to fulfil its important constitutional duties”.
The WHO, as of March 20, reported that the United Kingdom has 3,983 cases and reported 33 deaths.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle (Speaker for House of Commons) and the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler (Speaker for House of Lords) said:
We are resolved that Parliament should, insofar as possible, continue to fulfil its important constitutional duties of passing legislation, holding Government to account and, crucially, representing the views of the people of the United Kingdom and making their voice heard.
In order to preserve the operation of Parliament, it is our duty to take proportionate and reasonable measures to reduce the risk to those who work on the Parliamentary Estate and those who have to visit.
We are clear that now is the time to be pragmatic; everyone in the country is being asked to strike a balance and it is right that we do the same.
It is in this spirit that we have decided to implement a number of restrictions relating to overseas travel and visitor access. These steps have been developed in conjunction with Public Health England and reflect the Government’s current approach.
The Canadian House of Commons, in its statement dated 13 March, stated that the House stood adjourned until April 20, 2020. In addition, the House cancelled all parliamentary functions and events in the House of Commons precincts from March 13 until April 20, 2020. Further, it closed visitor access to the House of Commons precinct and cancelled public tours; and suspended committee travel.
The Canadian Senate, in its press release dated 13 March, adjourned until Tuesday, April 21, 2020, in an effort to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
The WHO, as of March 20, reported that Canada has 846 cases and reported 9 deaths.
The United States Congress
The United States Congress is still proceedings with its sittings as of March 23. However, it has been reported that the United States Congress confirmed its first coronavirus cases on Wednesday. Florida Representative Mario Diaz-Balart and Utah Representative Ben McAdams have both tested positive for COVID-19. On Sunday, Rand Paul became the first senator to test positive for the virus.
It has been reported that on Thursday, March 20, Senate Republicans formally rolled out a $1 trillion economic stimulus plan intended to deliver aid to US businesses and the American public.
Senate Republicans on Thursday formally rolled out a $1 trillion economic stimulus plan intended to deliver critical aid to US businesses and the American public. A Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Security Bill will be introduced by the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
There are four Bills before the House of Representatives that seek to address challenges caused by COVID-19. The first, by Rep. Wild Susan, seeks “to provide for additional emergency nutrition assistance under the Older Americans Act of 1965 in fiscal year 2020 to respond to the declared COVID-19 public health emergency, and for other purposes.” The second, by Rep. Velazquez Nydia, seeks “to provide relief from COVID-19 for small business concerns, and for other purposes”. The third, by Rep. Ruiz Raul, seeks “to require private health insurers to cover care related to COVID-19 without cost-sharing and to provide for special enrollment periods for individuals diagnosed with COVID-19”. The fourth, by Rep. Pocan Mark, seeks “to require the Secretary of Defense to make testing for the coronavirus disease 19 available to all members of the Armed Forces deployed to an area in which the United States Central Command has responsibility”.
The WHO, as of March 20, reported that the United States of America has 15,219 cases and reported 201 deaths.
Parliament of Australia
The Parliament of Australia, as of March 23, was proceeding with its parliamentary business.
The Senate was scheduled to meet to consider the Government’s stimulus package regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and other immediate business as of March 23. However, “measures have been put in place to reduce the number of people in certain parts of the Parliament House, including closing the public galleries”. Senate proceedings were to be broadcasted live and updates given on its twitter account.
It is worthy to note that the Senate was scheduled to consider the following bills that seek to ameliorate people’s conditions amidst COVID-19 on March 23: Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020, Boosting Cash Flow for Employers (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Assistance for Severely Affected Regions (Special Appropriation) (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 1) 2019-2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 2) 2019-2020, Structured Finance Support (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Australian Business Growth Fund (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, and Guarantee of Lending to Small and Medium Enterprises (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020.
In a Joint statement from the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Hon Tony Smith MP and the President of the Senate, Senator the Hon Scott Ryan dated March 16, a number of restrictions were placed on access to Parliament House. However, parliamentary sittings were directed to continue.
The Joint Statement further states:
While it is formally a matter for each committee to consider, we recommend that scheduled Senate, House and Joint committee hearings transition to using video or teleconference facilities as soon as possible.
Committees should give serious consideration as to whether their business is essential.
If any committee hearings proceed in Parliament House during the next parliamentary sitting week, they will not be open to the public. Arrangements will be made for witnesses to appear in person only if necessary. Committee proceedings may still be viewed on the Parliament House website.
However, Australia’s House of Representatives has indicated that the “House will sit on Monday, 23 March to consider the Government’s Coronavirus Economic Response Package. No other business is expected to be transacted and the House is not expected to sit beyond Monday.” In its twitter handle, the House of Representatives has announced that its next sitting will be on Tuesday 11 August 2020.
The WHO, as of March 20, reported that Australia has 873 cases and reported 7 deaths.
The German Bundestag continues with its proceedings. Further, it had directed that from Tuesday, 10 March, the dome and roof terrace of the Reichstag Building would be closed to all visitors until further notice in order to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus.
The Deutsche Welle (DW) has reported the following in regard to the German Bundestag:
Parliamentarian Dorothee Bär told DW’s Kay-Alexander Scholz that only a maximum of one-third of the body is now physically meeting in Berlin’s Reichstag building. Older members of parliament and those in health risk groups are working from home and only younger parliamentarians who must conduct specialized meetings or committee business are doing so from the parliament building.
In order to speed the adoption of emergency financial packages and other urgent legal measures, the body has done away with its usual procedures and quickened adoption mechanisms.
Friedrich Merz, one of the candidates to lead Germany’s governing Christian Democrats, has tested positive for the coronavirus. Six cases of COVID-19 have thus far been confirmed among German members of parliament, the Bundestag.
ayes & nays