By Sara Chitseko:
In response to the rapid developments with COVID-19, the government have introduced the Coronavirus Act 2020, which will be in place for the next two years, subject to review every six months. A key part of the Act includes increased powers for the police, namely, the power to detain if they believe you to be infectious and the power to restrict your right to be part of a gathering (BBC News, 2020). While there is general public consensus about the need to practice social distancing, these increased police powers are worryingly vague and have already resulted in a wrongful conviction.
Last Saturday 4th April, a Black woman named Marie Dinou was charged £660 after being wrongly charged under coronavirus laws (The Independent, 2020). She remained silent from when police first approached her at Newcastle train station, to the fine being issued 3 days later (ibid). It should be noted that in England and Wales, you have a right to remain silent during criminal proceedings (Gov.uk, 2020). Yet, an account at the hearing stated, “Defendant refuses to identify herself, sent back to cells and proved in absence” (ibid). Not only was Ms Dinou disallowed from her own hearing without any lawful reasoning, but it has also been reported that she was not known to have undergone a mental health assessment, and a nurse was not present at court, because of coronavirus (ibid).
Marie Dinou's experience is a concerning early example of how police powers are likely to be be abused in attempting to enforce the Coronavirus Act. A charge sheet said Ms Dinou had “failed to provide BTP officers with her identity or reasons for her journey”, and “failed to comply with a requirement” under the new law (The Independent, 2020). But the Coronavirus Act doesn't require people to provide their personal details, or state where they are going. There was no clear reason to believe that Marie was not complying with either of these measures. The case was subsequently overturned, with a spokesperson for the police stating "It shouldn't have happened" (The Independent, 2020).
It is not insignificant that this first case of a wrongful conviction using the Coronavirus Act was enacted on a Black woman. If we look to history, it is always Black people and other racialised communities who are most criminalised when police powers are extended, especially when they are vague.
On The Lockdown podcast, academic, Becka Hudson explains how in the context of stop and search, Black boys and men are nine times more likely to be pulled over. But when a Section 60 is imposed on an area which removes the need for 'reasonable suspicion,' Black boys and men are 28 times more likely to be on the receiving end of this power (Novara Media, 2020). The police are clearly prone to abusing the extensive powers they already have, from dispersal orders, to anti-social behaviour orders. Increased powers will only mean they are more likely to impose further sanctions on our communities with heightened impunity and aggression.
It is telling that the British government strategy to address the pandemic has started with criminalisation. We must question whether the police are practising social distancing when stopping people. How are they conducting arrests without having physical contact? The spread of coronavirus in prisons will have devastating consequences inside and outside of detention settings, so why do people continue to face incarceration?
The Coronavirus Act was drawn up extremely quickly and with little scrutiny. Other countries, such as South Korea, have demonstrated that a key factor in getting the virus under control was attributed to testing (The New York Times, 2020). It is paramount that the government are held accountable and explain how their approach is supportive of public health, rather than simply pandering to public panic, while criminalising large swathes of the population.
The government's rapid response to criminalise seems to be pre-emptive of a fear of losing control, as people realise that the government always could have done more to address the needs of the most vulnerable. Universal credit is now paid in a timely manner, when before people often had to wait in excess of five weeks. Attention to sick pay has led to questions of how anyone could live off £94.25 a week in the first place. Renters rights, workers rights and fundamentally, our right to health, have all been brought to the forefront of public consciousness.
It is impossible at this point to foresee the long-term impact that the coronavirus pandemic will have on our societies and ways of living. But, as a global crisis, we can expect it will also be a global turning point. While many communities across the world are grieving the world as we knew it, we must also ask why society is the way it is and which parts of society should be left behind when we emerge out of this crisis.
We face a very real risk that draconian powers which restrict our civil liberties may become the new 'normal.' Now is the time to fight to ensure our human rights are upheld so that when we do come out the other side, the government are held accountable for their failures and the deaths which could have been prevented. There must be meaningful learning taken from this experience, so that we are better prepared should we ever face a crisis like this again.
BBC News, 2020. What Can The Police Fine You For Doing?. [online] BBC News. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-52106843> [Accessed 7 April 2020].
Gov.uk, 2020. Being Arrested: Your Rights. [online] GOV.UK. Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/arrested-your-rights> [Accessed 7 April 2020].
Novara Media, 2020. The Lockdown | Novara Media. [online] Novara Media. Available at: <https://novaramedia.com/category/audio/the-lockdown/> [Accessed 7 April 2020].
The Independent, 2020. Exclusive: How Woman 'Loitering' At Train Station Was Wrongfully Convicted In Shambolic Coronavirus Case. [online] The Independent. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/coronavirus-marie-dinou-lockdown-stay-at-home-loitering-arrest-fine-police-a9444311.html> [Accessed 7 April 2020].
The Independent, 2020. Woman Fined For Refusing To Tell Police Reasons For Travel To Have Wrongful Conviction Quashed. [online] The Independent. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/coronavirus-fine-police-lockdown-travel-newcastle-marie-dinou-a9444186.html?amp&__twitter_impression=true> [Accessed 7 April 2020].
The New York Times, 2020. How South Korea Flattened The Curve. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/world/asia/coronavirus-south-korea-flatten-curve.html> [Accessed 7 April 2020].