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Dr Karen Sohan-Seenath

Former chief of staff at the Mt Hope Women’s Hospital Dr Karen Sohan has sued the Ministry of Health over its failure to respond to her request to disclose statistics on repatriated nationals who tested positive for COVID-19.

In an affidavit filed in her lawsuit, late last week, Sohan, who was left stranded in the United States for six months before she was granted an exemption to return to T&T in September last year, is claiming that the ministry failed in its duty under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to respond to her request either positively or negatively.

In the document, obtained by Guardian Media, Sohan, who was instrumental in this country’s response to the Zika virus in 2016, sought to explain that her interest in the statistics was based on her negative personal experience in being repatriated and enduring mandatory state quarantine last year.

“On arrival to Trinidad, I was assigned to a state quarantine facility which failed to adhere to public health guidelines for COVID-19 quarantine and included communal toilets, thereby endangering my health,” Sohan said.

“Apart from the reckless endangerment of my health by the sub-standard state quarantine facility, I was also very concerned about the cost to taxpayers of state quarantine, especially during this time when the economy has been suffering and that the numbers of nationals can return are limited by the number of quarantine spaces,” she added.

Sohan also claimed that she was concerned about reports from similarly stranded citizens, who were struggling financially to live abroad while awaiting a travel exemption.

“As a result of my public interest in the repatriation policy, many stranded nationals have reached out to me via telephone calls, WhatsApp messages, Facebook comments, and emails seeking advice and aid,” Sohan claimed, as she noted that she sent letters to several government officials including Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, National Security Minister Stuart Young, and Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh on the issue.

Sohan referred to general statements from the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the need for priority to be given to citizens requiring repatriation and statements by Rowley that the country’s policies would be based on scientific best practice.

She suggested that the government’s current limited border travel policy would only be sensible if the statistics, she is seeking, shows that returning nationals accounted for a large number of COVID-19 positive cases.

“However, if returning nationals were in the minority then home quarantine where nationals could isolate in accordance with WHO recommendations should be explored, especially as some state facilities were not adhering to COVID-19 quarantine guidelines,” she said.

Sohan noted that she is especially interested in the statistics during large-scale repatriations between August and October, last year when there was no reporting by the ministry on the numbers of returning nationals who tested positive.

She questioned whether it was due to a different reporting format or whether it was due to no returning nationals testing positive during the period.

“In the event that it was the latter, this would contradict the statements of the two senior health officials and could give the perception that the figures were being manipulated to suit the existing policy and induce fear in the resident population that returning nationals posed a considerable threat to the health of the resident population,” Sohan said.

Attempting to avoid speculating on the statistics, Sohan made the application under the FOIA in November last year. However, she was forced to file the lawsuit after she never received a response.

Through the lawsuit, Sohan is seeking declarations that the ministry’s continuing failure to respond to the request is illegal and that she is entitled to the requested information.

Sohan is also being represented by Skeeta John and Reah Sookhai.