I’ve been trying to work out the logic behind the police crackdown on the sale of packaged meals, specifically doubles, last week. I know it has been somewhat resolved with apologies and so on, but I think there is something to be learnt from these episodes.
Things like this can happen when people don’t fully grasp the thinking behind the rules or policies in a situation. If we break it down, we might have a clearer idea of how the rules themselves may have missed the point. We might even see that wrapped inside these little gambits for survival are seeds for a new way of doing things.
The primary purpose of changes to the Public Health Ordinance is to avoid the spread of Covid-19 by minimising physical contact among people. Thus, the restrictions on gatherings in places like restaurants, bars and cinemas. Exemptions have been made so that groceries and marketplaces and related types of outlets can continue to operate once they observe certain guidelines.
We know that whatever laws are put in place, there will be those who will disregard them; those who will only abide by them because of the risk of penalties. There will always be people who will miss the point; people whose circumstances will make it practically impossible for them to comply, and those who just don’t give a damn.
It’s a fact of life, it is not culturally peculiar to Trinidad and Tobago.
Given the relatively unscathed state of the country through the relentless swathe still being cut by the pandemic globally, it is likely that there will soon be an easing of some of the restrictions.
I bet a significant proportion of the population will continue to observe the guidelines for self-care, regardless of the lockdown let-up. I bet there will be just as significant a number throwing off the perceived shackles and rushing to partake of the pleasures they have been deprived of for the past couple of months.
It is that aspect of human nature that was so eloquently expressed by the Prime Minister when he said that, “A state of emergency will not make you wash your hands.” You will either do or you won’t.
But to go back to the police objecting to the sale of packaged doubles at an establishment that was permitted to be open.
The Express report said the police told the manager that “the prepared meals, including their hot meals made in-house, were similar to what a restaurant would do and restaurant-type food was not permitted due to the current Covid-19 regulations.”
The Commissioner of Police quickly intervened and referred them to the relevant aspect of the Public Health Ordinance, which the Express cited at Regulation 10: “Street vending of food and beverages and all retail food services (including restaurants in-house dining, delivery and take-away services), except discount stores, markets, supermarkets, fruit stalls or shops, vegetable stalls or shops, bakeries and ‘parlours,’ for the provision of food or other necessities of life, shall be closed for operation during the period set out.”
Now, had the officers assimilated the purpose of the regulations, they would have been able to assess the situation and conclude that if a supermarket can carry packaged food and you can go in and buy it as long as you are observing health guidelines, then anywhere that is still authorised to open should be allowed to do the same (once they have the requisite operating licences). I am not clear about what hot meals were being prepared in-house, and maybe the gathering of cooks was the issue, but it struck me that the issue of cracking down on “restaurant-type” meals could use some rethinking.
The suspension of a broad base of economic activity has thrown a lot of people into very grim situations. Even with an easing of restrictions, it is going to be a long, hobbled crawl to any semblance of stability.
Instead of criminalising those who are finding ways to earn a dollar, this is a good time to examine ways to ease back into the reopening of society and to look at some of the strategies of the underground to see how they could help us walk the next critical steps.
Why not look at the prospect of partnerships such as this one, formed by the doubles-maker and the service station, and replicate them across the country? Why not allow the people who have traditionally provided our popular, road-side fare to package and sell their victuals from the shelves of supermarkets and bakeries and the like?
It might seem frivolous to equate the deprivation of one’s favourite foods with mental well-being, but under the circumstances, it is difficult for people to cope with their loss of routine, and even if they will not have the social activity of convening for doubles, or gyros, or burgers or whatever, it might ease some of the pressure if they can still feast on the food. It will also provide a partial way to help people earn some income during the transition, and by putting it on shelves that are already accessible, it should not increase the risk of careless gatherings.
It might be worth considering, even if you still can’t make them wash their hands.