Any eventuality or even an Act of God can be effectively dealt with when there is some legal/ legislative framework available to those who are tasked with dealing with a situation that is a crisis. It is for this reason we have protocols encoded in various laws to offer a very systematic approach to deal with a crisis, while in the recent COVID-19 epidemic gaining ground in India, the officials from top to top were and are shrouded with mysticism surrounding the fact that there is no legal vocabulary or framework to tackle the measures taken by the GoI to tackle the Coronvirus through mass lock-down. There is prevailing discomfort and lack of management and co-ordination that has not only increases blackmarketing and hoarding but has also drained out supply chains in some places just because there existed no legal framework to offer a yardstick of conduct to the police and other departments dealing with the situation under the Epidemic Diseases Act-1897.
Today, not just India, but the entrie globe is facing a crisis wherein the lives of almost all the people around the globe are in an imminent danger from an invisible microorganism known as SARS COV-2, and the name of the disease is COVID-19. There have been epidemics in India, and there was once a plague in the late 19th century, which remained active across various parts of the country over a period of three years from 1894 to 1898.
The Biritish had a problem in dealing with the epidemic plague which used to come to an end in one place and show up in another. The most important idea at that point was to deal with the situation as it unfurled, and locally.
Subsequently there have been famines and other calamities including the SARS and MERS, H1N1 which saw the effects in the countries neighbouring China, and never caught the imagination of Indians. Let alone our law makers.
Today, there has been a lot of confusion and chaos in managing and implementing the steps required to deal with a contingency that has arisen today, and it is an epidemic more profoundly a pandemic now, since it has taken many lives all over the globe now.
Our response strategy in terms of legal framework falls short of a definition of an epidemic as per the Act of 1897 where we stand taking all the measures to combat the COVID-19, and are finding it hard to issue and circulate orders and notifications in the government machinery which is finding it tought to provide ample information and instructions to make the lockdown a smooth and effective startegic war, but it is becoming a story of discomfort all over with no definitive legal framework in place to offer some strong pitch for the instructions and actions to trickle down and reach the people and thereby ease the process of offering relief in the wake of this crisis.
Unfortunately while the Parliament was busy tackling our economic agenda, we forgot to cater to a small and a very important bill presented by the Public Health Division of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, known as the Public Health (Prevention, Control & Management of Epidemics, Bio-terrorism and Disasters) Bill, 2017.
This Bill in clause 2(m) defines “epidemic” as the occurrence in a community or region of cases of an illness, specific health related behavior, or other health related events clearly in excess of normal expectancy. This has forever evaded the current legal framework to tackle situations like these.
Even the statement of objects clause of this bill clearly states that it aims to “provide for the prevention, control and management of epidemics, public health consequences of disasters, acts of bio terrorism or threats thereof and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”, which is a situation as prevailing today.
The complete methodology, and the necessary terminology in terms of orders and others would have been available if the Parliament in time enacted this code repealing the Epidemic Diseases Act!
This act very clearly provides a legal framework which could have been put in place without any legislative vacuum which prevailed over the State Governments waiting for cues from the Central Government and the ease of instructions being followed would have been utterly smooth. The disruptions in the supply chains and the blind lock-downs, sealing and rush at the public transport facilities would have been averred and the decontamination/ isolation process would have been declared to the public with time remaining in the hands of the public to respond positively.
The percolation of instructions and the lack of clarity about the orders given by the state governments added to the woes of the people, while the Parliamentarians kept on attending to the other matters like what not!
https://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/draft/Draft%20PHPCM%20of%20Epidemics,%20Bio-Terrorism%20and%20Disasters%20Bill,%202017.pdf this is the link to the draft of the Bill and the EDA 1897, is repealed by this bill vide section 14, which could have been done long time ago.
The EDA-1897 is a completely outdated law, and with the responsibilities of the state and the challenges brought out by epidemics taking various forms, the Public Health (Prevention, Control & Management of Epidemics, Bio-terrorism and Disasters) Bill, 2017 would have offered a yardstick to the bureaucracy and the people to forsee a possible situation and better mobilisation of resources could have been worked out only if we had the legislative framework in place.
The Parliament must take the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare more seriously sometimes, and specially when it is about public health in the world’s second largest population, because today, let’s face it, we neither are possessed with the infrastructure to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak nor are we in a position to offer creamtion services or burials to the population at stake.
The only thing this author does, and requests all to do is pray to the Almighty for a miracle!