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Recent legislation has been passed in Trinidad and Tobago to make wearing face masks in public spaces compulsory. Around the world this is not a novel feature. Many countries have already implemented this since March 2020. Like Trinidad and Tobago, some countries have sought to re-enforce mask wearing with fines and penalties. One example is Morocco, where the offence comes with a prison sentence of one to three months and a fine varying between $80 and $350 USD.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the enforcement of this legislation includes $1,000, $2,000, and $3,000 TTD for the first, second and third offence, respectively. Comments from citizens on social media on the new legislation vary. Some say, just wear a mask and you will not be fined. Others are wary of abuse from police via the legislation and restriction of certain human rights and freedoms. We already see some cases where the legislation can be considered disadvantageous to human mental health and well-being.

One case is that of the Tobago fisherman, charged for swimming alone in a public beach. Controlled lab studies show the possibility of contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus through respiratory droplets released in the air is most likely to occur in an indoor setting. Mayo Clinic and the United States CDC provides a list of suggested COVID-19 outdoor activities ranked according to risk factors. Both list swimming as low risk if distance is maintained (6 feet) from people you do not live with. Are our laws taking into consideration scientific findings?

Negative reinforcement

For the protection of citizens, the ever-so-popular enforcement sentence of fines and imprisonment are implemented to help control the spread of the virus. No doubt this type of negative reinforcement works. However, are we reaching citizens in a manner that they able to internalise and ascertain that their actions were truly a wrong choice? Fines for misdemeanour offences create a pattern of negative reinforcement, which in turn are creating bitter citizens. On social media we see this further encourages racial divide when people irrationally analyse without access to any actual data or statistics. For example, who is being fined and who is not? Are we in Trinidad and Tobago constantly reprimanding citizens and not educating and uplifting them?

Changing behaviours

Truly changing the behaviour of a population should not include strategies that embitter them. Through very little research I came across various solutions for enforcement of misdemeanour offences. I will elaborate on only one––a first line punishment of community service. For many misdemeanour offences global studies have shown that offenders continued community service activities voluntarily even after mandatory enforcement was lifted. In cases like these, offenders learned to appreciate the value of their work and the change that it brings to communities, creating potential for positive behavioural changes. Can these and other solutions be explored, as opposed to the continuous enforcement of exorbitant fines and imprisonment for small offences during an already economically and mentally stressful time for citizens.

This virus according to WHO will likely be around by 2022 and thereafter. We need to consider in totality the health and well-being of our population alongside the reinforcements being placed “for our own good.” I ask the Government and opposition to be creative, use other countries as example, focus on scientific literature and please take the mental and economic well-being of the population into consideration when exercising your mandate to serve Trinidad and Tobago. Are these slurries of fines truly leading to more enlightened citizens?

Stacy Anushka Ballyram

Via email