Thermal checks, masks, spaced seating: Maldives parliament ‘defies’ lockdown to resume chamber sittings

Parliamentarians wearing masks and observing social distancing rules attended a sitting at the chambers Tuesday, the first sitting of the parliament in person since health authorities in Maldives placed the capital on lockdown.

On March 30, the government-controlled parliament switched to virtual sittings after weeks of downplaying the severity of the coronavirus outbreak. MPs had since been joining the sittings via Microsoft Teams.

But speaker Mohamed Nasheed, a former president whose human rights activism and climate advocacy earned him international fame, abruptly informed parliamentarians Monday evening that a sitting would be held at the chambers Tuesday.

His decision came ahead of the parliamentary debate on an amendment to the constitution, which would see the term of existing local councillors extended until the islands can elect new councillors.

The local council elections were scheduled for April, but had to be delayed to January 2021 via a sunset law due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Speaker Nasheed, whose Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) controls the coalition government and has a super majority in the 87-member parliament, said he was not comfortable with amending the constitution without being present in the chambers.

The speaker’s decision caught health authorities off guard. Health Protection Agency (HPA) scrambled to issue guidelines for the parliamentarians to follow during the sitting, whilst the police hastily issued permits for MPs to travel to the parliament house.

MPs were only allowed to enter the parliament house after thermal checks and wearing face masks. Secretariat staff also had to add extra chairs, as HPA asked the parliamentarians to sit at least three feet apart.

During the televised sitting, MPs appeared to struggle with the safety measures. Several MPs, including the speaker, especially complained about the challenges in speaking through a mask.

However, Nasheed urged MPs to continue covering their face. He said he would share with MPs any “trick” he learned about “better adapting to speaking through a mask”.

On March 8, Maldives reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus, as two hotel employees tested positive for Covid-19 at a luxury resort in the archipelago.

Eighteen more cases — all foreigners working or staying resorts and liveaboard vessels except five Maldivians who had returned from abroad — were later identified.

A six-case cluster of locals, detected in capital Male on April 15, confirmed community transmission of the coronavirus. Several more clusters have since been identified, bringing the total number of confirmed case in the Maldives to 1,395.

Four deaths have been reported and 155 have made full recoveries. Five remain in intensive care.

The Maldives announced a state of public health emergency on March 12, the first such declaration under a recent public health protection law.

The public health emergency declaration has allowed the government to introduce a series of unprecedented restrictive and social distancing measures, including stay-at-home orders in capital Male and its suburbs, a ban on inter-island transport and public gatherings across the country, and a nationwide closing of government offices, schools, colleges and universities.

Non-essential services and public places in the capital such as gyms, cinemas and parks have also been shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital have been asked to stop dine-in service and switch to takeaway and delivery.

A nationwide shutdown of all guesthouses, city hotels and spa facilities located on inhabited islands is also in effect.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit the Maldivian economy hard, as travel restrictions and other preventive measures affect the country’s lucrative tourism industry, which contributes the bulk of the island nation’s state revenue and foreign reserves.

Before the pandemic, the government had been bullish about tourism prospects, targeting two million, high-spending holidaymakers this year after last year’s record 1.7 million.

However, tourist arrivals saw a year-over-year decline of 22.8 per cent in the first 10 days of March. Officials say the number of tourist arrivals to the Maldives could drop by half in 2020.

All international airlines have suspended scheduled operations to the Maldives, as the island nation enforced a blanket suspension of on-arrival visa in late March in a bid to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Even before the visa suspension, the Maldives had closed its borders to arrivals from some of the worst-hit countries, including mainland China, Italy, Bangladesh, Iran, Spain, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Visitors from three regions of Germany (Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg), two regions of France (Île-de-France and Grand Est) and two regions of South Korea were also banned from entering the country.

All direct flights to and from China, Italy, South Korea and Iran were also cancelled.

Cruise ships and foreign yachts were also banned from docking at any of the country’s ports.

With arrival numbers falling and the visa suspension in effect, several resorts across the Maldives had been closed.

Tourism has been the bedrock of the Maldives’ economic success. The $5 billion-dollar economy grew by 6.7 per cent in 2018 with tourism generating 60 per cent of foreign income.

However, the government is at present projecting a possible 13 per cent economic contraction this year — an estimated $778 million hit.

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