Healthcare laws in India and COVID-19

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By: Shilpa Roy

The Supreme Court of India has emphasized in Vincent v. Union of India (AIR 1987 SC 990:( 1987) 2 SCC 165 that “a healthy body is the very foundation of all human activities”. With the World Health Organization formally declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on 11th March 2020, the Indian government fastened their seat belts and strengthen up efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and the key legislation it resorts to is the archaic 123-year law i.e. The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, that governs healthcare in India. This 1897 law was enacted by the British to fight the Bubonic Plague in Bombay, and it comprises of only four sections. The Act has been used to curb various diseases in India such as swine flu, cholera, malaria and dengue. In 2019, the Act was enforced as cholera began to spread in a region of Gujarat. In 2015, it was used to deal with dengue and malaria in Chandigarh. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic the Cabinet Secretary of India, Rajiv Gauba on 11 March, 2020 announced that all states and Union Territories should invoke provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1987. But the federal structure of the Indian Constitution is working as a hindrance to deal with the pandemic situation. Health finds a place in the State List under the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The power granted to the Centre under this Act is very limited and it the discretion of the State government to take necessary steps. The Centre only plays an advisory role and cannot strictly impose the regulations. As a result of these shortcomings India is facing serious problems to meet the needs of a pandemic situation.

Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor who had attended several gatherings in Lucknow, recently hit the headlines after she tested positive for COVID-19. An FIR was lodged against her at Sarojini Nagar Police Station under Section 188, 269 and 270 of Indian Penal Code, on the complaint of the Chief Medical Officer, Lucknow. The singer, who had returned from London, reportedly avoided the mandatory 14-day quarantine rule and mingled with the crowd. In yet another case, a young IAS officer in Kerala, Anupam Mishra has been booked by police for skipping home quarantine after his return from Singapore. On March 25, 2020 a priest and office bearers of St Peter’s Church at Adoor in Pathanamthitta district, Kerala were booked when the priest led a funeral prayer service where more than 100 people took part. Again, at Kottaraka in Kollam district, a former police officer was charged for organizing the marriage of his daughter, having 100 invitees. These are just a few examples of how the absence of archaic healthcare laws is a glaring loophole in India’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

The only weapon for the administrators in the wake of the pandemic and lockdown in India is Section 188, 269 and 270 of the Indian Penal Code which was enacted in the year 1860. Section 269 imposes imprisonment up to six months or fine or with both for negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life. Section 270 on the other hand imposes an enhanced punishment of imprisonment up to two years or fine or with both for malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life. Section 188 provides punishment for disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant. Unfortunately the present legal framework does not give much attention to surveillance, vaccination, strict quarantine and lockdown rules. The Government also declared the disease a “notified disaster” under the Disaster Management Act but the legal framework still needs to be stringent. Countries all over the world like Australia, United States, European Union (EU) and Spain have laid great emphasis on strengthening healthcare laws during such pandemics.

The COVID-19 outbreak and the sudden shutdown of business have suspended the lives of millions of migrant laborers and farmers in India but the need of the hour is social distancing. The sight of people rushing to vegetable markets neglecting the basic social distancing norms and quarantine rules may pose a danger to the rise of corona virus cases in India. India undoubtedly needs archaic laws to tackle this situation but we cannot lend a blind eye to the fact that people’s consciousness is all the more required. Only when we work in solidarity we can overcome a crisis with ease. “United we stand, divided we fall” shall be the motto of India for these 21 days or may be until the virus is diminished.

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