The manner in which COVID-19 test results are reportedly being relayed from the Ministry of Health and Wellness to people who have been tested has been called into question by attorney Lalu Hanuman.
In fact, the lawyer, who was defending a Swiss national charged with breaching this island’s quarantine directive, argued that there were “fundamental failings with the process”.
He was at the time mitigating on behalf of visitor Ismail Elbagli who pleaded guilty to breaching Paragraph (14) of the Emergency Management (COVID-19) Curfew (No. 4) Directive 2020 in that, being a person in quarantine at Infinity Hotel, he left the premises without reasonable explanation.
When the charge was first read to Elbagi through an interpreter, he pleaded not guilty, but he changed his plea given that he has a flight home on Saturday at 9 p.m.
The visitor arrived in Barbados on December 19 with a negative test from Switzerland, dated December 16, prosecutor Paul Prescod disclosed. He was tested here on December 20 and instructed to quarantine at Infinity Hotel and await his results. On December 23, he allegedly presented the results that he had received from his home country, at the hotel’s front desk, saying that he had been cleared. He subsequently asked to check out, which he and his wife did.
However, the Ministry of Health and Wellness called the hotel that same day to inform Elbagi that his test had come back positive, but was told that he had checked out.
Police were called in and the visitor was apprehended at the hotel.
Hanuman, however, said it was Elbagi’s wife who dealt with the front desk as he does not speak any English. He explained that a single phone call was the catalyst for the series of events that followed.
The defence attorney said that according to his information, the wife received a telephone call around 8:30 that morning in their room which “came, as far as she can establish, from the Ministry of Health”.
“Whoever was on the other end, a female, said ‘the test is negative’. It materialised that that phone call, in terms of the test result, was only for the wife. It was not for the husband. But she interpreted as being the first-person plural results. So she told her husband ‘our results are negative’, they packed their bags and they went down to the front desk,” Hanuman told Chief Magistrate Ian Weekes.
He said it appeared that the hotel “didn’t follow their own COVID-19 protocols because I would have thought they themselves needed to be informed by an external source that that was the case”. Instead, he argued, the establishment charged the couple for their four-night stay which they paid and they asked for directions to get to an Airbnb property and left.
The attorney said it was while there that Elbagi received a phone call from the Ministry of Health that his test was positive and he was told to return to the Infinity Hotel which he “promptly” did.
“There seems to be another lacuna, as it were, of the procedures. We would have thought if somebody is found to be positive and whoever is calling knows that they are at the Airbnb, they would have been told to stay there, where an ambulance would come and get you rather than travelling back by public transport to Infinity, which makes no sense.
“So there seem to be two fundamental failings in the process. One by the hotel not validating and verifying the information that they got from the wife; and secondly, whoever called the Airbnb. . . telling them then to come back to Infinity and exposing the public in the circumstances.”
The lawyer further submitted that what was crucial was Elbagi, who is an art student, “voluntarily” went back to Infinity and followed all instructions.
“So, it seems to be more of a litany of errors. It seems to me that there was no deliberate attempt to breach the protocols in any way. It’s all a litany of errors, lack of adequate English, having the phone call telling her that her test was negative and misinterpreted as being our test are negative and then the sequence of events.
“Personally, I fully [support] the fact that anybody who breaches quarantine deliberately should be firmly dealt with, but in this circumstance . . . what I glean from the facts, Sir, [it was] a misunderstanding and a failing of the system itself on two counts – both at the hotel and the Ministry of Health to do with Airbnb,” Hanuman said as he urged the court to show “some mercy” and “extend some clemency” to his client.
Chief Magistrate Weekes, taking into consideration the lawyer’s arguments, maintained that Elbagi had some responsibility, even though “minimal” to double-check that all was well.
But Hanuman insisted that there should have been “something in writing”.
“The Ministry of Health should have a courier to go to the hotel with a piece of paper, with the name of the person, saying ‘negative test’. The Attorney General’s Office, as part of the protocol procedures, should ensure that the tourist actually gets a document saying you are free to leave, the hotel quarantine is finished, and none of these situations would arise, Sir.”
Weekes, however, ruled that a fine would have to be paid or Elbagi would be kept in custody.
“You looking at $6 000. I was thinking about $8 000 for him, but you raised one or two issues which caused me to bring it down . . . [because] if I don’t know the language I would double and triple check because I ain’t from bout hey,” the Chief Magistrate said.
However, by the time the ruling was handed down, the court’s accounts department was closed. The accused, it was revealed, had access to the funds and could pay the fine but the money was not in Barbadian currency.
Elbagi was able to secure a surety who signed $20 000 bail on his behalf.
The visitor is to transfer money for the fine to the surety who will pay it to the court. That payment, however, must be made in seven days.
Magistrate Weekes warned that an arrest warrant would be facilitated through Interpol if the fine was not paid.
Elbagi was apprehended at the Infinity Hotel and taken to the Harrison Point Facility. He was later cleared with a negative test.