Parliament in times of COVID-19
Should parliament continue working despite the coronavirus pandemic? At least some civil society organizations in Pakistan earlier thought so and demanded that both parliament and provincial assemblies continue meeting during the crisis.
Initially, Indian Prime Minister Modi had thought so too and had brushed aside Indian parliamentarians’ persistent demands to cut short the budget session scheduled to continue till April 3.
But as news spread of at least one parliamentarian’s presence in a party hosted by a popular singer, Kanika Kapoor, who later tested positive for novel coronavirus and after many realized that the partying parliamentarians had attended several parliamentary sittings between the day of the party and Kapoor testing positive, it became impossible to continue the session as scheduled.
The session was prorogued on March 23 after hurriedly passing the finance bill. The MP in question went into self-quarantine and the lady was not only hospitalized but also booked by local police under several charges. Many people continue to criticize PM Modi for not proroguing the parliament earlier and instead exposing parliamentarians to an unnecessary hazard.
These challenges are not specific to any one parliament in the world. Parliaments around the globe in fact, are facing increased and, in many ways, unique challenges. The British House of Commons which was scheduled to continue its session till March 31 before going on Easter recess, had to take an early break on March 25. The House of Lords went on break a day earlier.
These testing times, however, should not mean that parliament and provincial assemblies become dormant. Parliamentary scrutiny of government’s actions and inaction to address the emergency at hand is extremely important.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
As parliaments and their committees have to meet with the members physically present, social distancing requirements and lockdowns have made it almost impossible to continue with business as usual.
The opposition in Pakistan’s parliament had requisitioned an extraordinary session of the National Assembly before the coronavirus crisis intensified. The requisition was later withdrawn on March 26, in view of the practical hurdles in holding the session.
The National Assembly Speaker has canceled all committee meetings and constituted a 26-member Parliamentary Committee on Coronavirus Disease under his own chairmanship and consisting of senior leaders from all 15 political parties represented in the Senate and the National Assembly. Earlier, the Speaker had convened a meeting of the parliamentary leaders in the national assembly to discuss the COVID-19 issues via video link. The meeting proved technically feasible but Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari walked out after they realized that the Prime Minister had logged off after delivering his speech.
Although convening a virtual meeting of the entire house is not an impossibility, it will be a challenge to provide required technical equipment and know-how to all 342 members in the houses. In addition, assembly rules will also need to be modified to legitimize virtual proceedings of the assembly. Regular sittings of the assembly will be almost impossible so long as lockdown and social distancing requirements are in place.
These testing times, however, should not mean that parliament and provincial assemblies become dormant. Parliamentary scrutiny of government’s actions and inaction to address the emergency at hand is extremely important. Each provincial assembly has a standing committee on health. Both the Senate and National Assembly have separate Standing Committees on National Health Services, Regulation and Coordination. In addition, now we have the joint parliamentary committee on Covid-19.
Sadly, the oversight function of these and other committees, with a few exceptions, has not been brilliant in the past. The need of the hour is that these committees must at least become active convening their meetings via video link or using several applications which have recently become known. In addition, the parliamentary leaders’ forum should also virtually meet despite the fiasco of the last meeting. A democracy can’t afford a dormant parliament especially under the current difficult times.
*Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.