Curbing COVID; Playing by the rules

The Indian Constitution was made with plenty of foresight and measures to fight a pandemic like COVID-19. Though inconvenient, these laws come handy while trying to contain a catastrophe

Published: 25th March 2020 06:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th March 2020 06:49 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

KOCHI: Covid-19 continues to threat humanity regardless of age, sex, lifestyle, ethnic background,  socio-economic status and nationality. Since vaccination or treatments are not available,   minimizing the transmission of Covid-19    is the only way in front of the Public health care system. 
The public health care law plays a reactive role in supporting the health system during situations like these.

This involves an exercise of a wide range of administrative powers like the conduct of surveillance, isolation or quarantine of infected or potentially infected individuals, seizing property to establish emergency response centres and ensuring the availability and rapid distribution of pharmaceuticals and supplies, expanding the health care or disaster management workforce by co-opting personnel from other agencies and jurisdictions under a unified command structure and interfering with freedom of movement, the right to control one’s health and body, privacy and property rights.

The Constitution of India very well justifies this reactive role of the public health law. Central and state governments are constitutionally empowered to legislate on matters of public health. As per the Union List ie., List I Entries 28  and 81  of the 7th schedule, the  Union is empowered to legislate on matters which may deal with port quarantine, including in connection with marine hospitals. The law may also deal with interstate migration and quarantine.  Likewise, public health is a state subject.

Entry 26 of the Concurrent list covers legal, medical and other professional rights while Entry 29of the Concurrent list covers prevention of the extension from one state to another of infectious or contagious diseases or pests affecting men, animals or plants.  Legal frameworks are thus important during emergencies as they can delineate the scope of the government’s responses to public health emergencies  In India, the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897   is invoked in case of medical emergencies.

Enacted in the wake bubonic plague,  the Act was passed to prevent the spread of ‘dangerous epidemic diseases’.  The act, being one of the strongest in India, comprises four sections—Section 2  of the act empowers the state to take measures as warranted or necessary to control the further spread of disease. 
 Thus, any state government, when satisfied that any part of its territory is threatened with an outbreak of a dangerous disease, may adopt or authorize all measures, including quarantine, to prevent the outbreak of the disease.  

Though the  Act, 1897, gives the Central and State Governments overarching powers, it lacks management systems required for a coordinated and concerted response to COVID -19.Therefore, the Disaster Management   Act,  2005,  which provides for an exhaustive administrative set up for disaster preparedness is also invoked. The DM Act lays down a multi-dimensional strategy to complicated situations similar to COVID-19.

The powers held by the home ministry under the Disaster Management Act is currently delegated to the health ministry to enhance preparations.Invoking the DM Act, 1995   the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare directed all state/ UTs Government and concerned State Authorities to take necessary steps to ensure sufficient availability of surgical and protective masks, hand sanitisers and gloves at prices not exceeding the maximum retail price printed on the pack size. 

The two and three-ply surgical masks, N95 and hand sanitisers have been declared as essential commodities under the Essential Commodities Act 1955 to ensure prevention of hoarding, black marketing and profiteering of these items. The DM Act also helps the concerned authorities to nab any person who makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic.

In addition to the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 and Disaster Management Act 1995, the  Aircraft Act of 1934 and  R.2(8) Indian Aircraft (Public Health) Rules  1954 allows airport authorities to screen the travellers who originate from or transit through COVID -19 affected nations, and track them after their arrival in India. 

As the outbreak continues to evolve, Indian just like other countries across the world are considering options on a war footing to prevent the introduction of the disease to new areas or to reduce human-to-human transmission in areas where the virus that causes COVID-19 is already circulating. 
But at times one can find that irresponsible behaviour from the side of the citizens to put an entire society into acute danger. Strict action must be taken against such irresponsible behaviour with provisions of the Indian Penal Code. 

The author is the dean and head of School of Indian Legal Thought, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam

Legal frameworks are important during emergencies as they can delineate the scope of the government’s responses to public health emergencies. In India, the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897   is invoked in the wake of bubonic plague


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