The decision to re-open our borders as from October must have been received with a sigh of relief by the thousands of our compatriots who have been stranded abroad for the last six months. That relief, however, was short-lived as they immediately learnt that they would be socked with a Rs50,000 bill for the imposed quarantine. Rs50,000 on every single adult’s quarantine is no chump change. Add it to the airfares and it starts to feel like a punishment.
The government spokesperson, Zouberr Joomaye, announced this fee in the most matter-of-fact way, totally oblivious to the circumstances of those targeted by a sum that is more than five times the minimum salary. No exception, no special circumstances, no nothing. If you want to return to your country, you will cop it. You either pay now or you contract a loan and pay later. There is no question about not coughing up the money.
“When a government pays Rs19 billion for Safe City cameras, Rs5 billion for a stadium that I hope will produce enough mushrooms to make the price accessible to most of us and another Rs29 billion for a tramway, it is a bit rich to cry poor over paying for a quarantine fee, isn’t it?”
More concerning than slapping a Rs50,000 fee on citizens, as if returning to their country after six months in exile was a privilege rather than a right, is the reaction of some citizens. Some reactions went as far as to suggest that people should pay for their own hotel if they want to stay in one. As if being locked up in a hotel room, making your own bed, cleaning your bathroom and eating cold take-away fried rice had anything to do with a holiday in a five-star hotel. It doesn’t. Two weeks trapped inside a small room is not exactly the definition of having the time of one’s life. As if coming back to your country is a choice. It isn’t. As if paying Rs50,000 after being forced to stay abroad for six months without a job is not a big human tragedy!
“Who pays then?” I heard some people ask. Who pays when you go to the hospital and get free treatment? Who pays when you send your children to a public school? Who pays for the buses who shuttle them to school for free? Who pays for your parental leave? In a welfare state, you do not target individuals and make them pay for their unique activities. And returning home is as much of a right as having access to any of these services we are paying for as taxpayers.
I also wonder how ministers – who are drawing huge salaries in spite of the political grandstanding about sacrifices and whatnot – can look us straight in the eye and ask us to pay for quarantine. Is the state that hard up? If it is, how do they justify the new cars they have purchased in the middle of the biggest sanitary crisis, in our case compounded by the biggest environmental tragedy in our history? How do they justify the salary given to Sandya Boyagah for a job she is obviously not qualified for? How do they explain appointing a retired policeman to the board of a state bank and bleeding the already ailing bank even more? Are these more priorities than allowing people, some of whom have been in exile and out of a job for the last six months, to come home without having to re-think their plans because of lack of funds to pay for their isolation? We must remember that the citizens stranded abroad were not necessarily gallivanting overseas on holiday. Many were abroad for work or health reasons. Many will find the decision to return home harder because of the huge financial penalty of paying for government-mandated hotel quarantine. Others will simply not come back because they can’t afford it.
Returning citizens understand the need for and accept their captivity for the greater good. It should, however, not cost them their savings. And when a government pays Rs19 billion for Safe City cameras, Rs5 billion for a stadium that I hope will produce enough mushrooms to make the price accessible to most of us and another Rs29 billion for a tramway, it is a bit rich to cry poor over paying for a quarantine fee, isn’t it?