India’s Take on Epidemics

Feelings of fatigue, frequent chills, high fever, and swelling in the throat and lymph nodes. Sound familiar? No, these are not symptoms of COVID 19. These are common symptoms of the Bubonic Plague. Why was this information entailed? Simply because the 2-page Epidemic law that existed 123 years ago to treat the Plague is the one of the only pieces of legislation presently enforced to curb the spread of the novel Coronavirus.

As experts warn that the new mutation of Coronavirus might have already reached India, policymakers everywhere argue for the urgency to formulate new epidemic laws by repealing the Epidemic Act Of 1897 to prepare the nation for any potential outbreaks. The need to do so is urgent, and imperative.

The Fundamentals of The Epidemic Act Of 1897 state that Under Section 2 of the 1897 Act, state governments are permitted to take stringent measures and establish temporary regulations to curb the spread of the disease. Under Section 2(A) the central government is permitted to take complete control of movement of goods and services in ships, including detaining persons who are suspected to be infected by a dangerous epidemic disease in hospitals or healthcare facilities.

Arguably an outdated law, the EDA fails to clearly define the term “epidemic.” This ambiguity propagates potential grey areas and loopholes of exploitation in specific situations. As a result of this setback, it does not take into account significant factors such as magnitude size, and population demographics. While the law explicitly outlines the powers of the Government, it fails to define the responsibilities of the Government towards its citizens. It offers no concessions, benefits, or medical facilities offered to marginalized workers, migrants, workers in informal sectors or community members of rural communities. Furthermore, distinctions between “isolation” and “quarantine” are not clearly defined; this blatant lack of clarity further fails to acknowledge the role of the government in ensuring health care provisions for persons who may have travelled internationally or are suspected of being infected.

The time period from the 19th century to the 21st century has been characterized by major technological leaps, and since aerial transport was practically non-existent at the time, the Act only refers to land and sea routes. Consequently, The Act is devoid precautionary health care measures or provisional measures for air passengers. Another grave matter of concern is the addressal of vaccines. As India prepares to begin vaccination by January 2021, the Act neglects the implementation of extensive vaccine drives – For a country of 1.38 billion people.

In 2017, The Health Ministry proposed a bill that serves to enable state governments to take proper measures to combat public health emergencies like epidemics. The new and revised law is more comprehensive, modern, and draws clear definitions of important terms such as “pandemic”, “epidemic”, “public health emergency”, and “outbreak” under the preliminaries. It also incorporates precautionary measures such as social distancing, treatment guidelines, quarantine and isolation under Public Health Measures. It further allows any person(s) or aggrieved by the order of the State government or administration of Union Territory or district or local authority passed under section 3, section 4 and section 5 to appeal against said order.

Yet, the Bill has not been put before parliament till now.

A modern legal framework is the need of the hour to treat such unforeseen emergencies.

The framework must also examine issues such as contract tracing, a violation of the Right to Privacy Act, from a socio-legal lens. It further must incorporate measures for psychological relief, especially for marginalized communities, in addition to creating a transparent database to ensure financial relief for those disadvantaged at the socio-economic ladder. Comprehensive, technologically advanced, and robust laws detailed towards public welfare must serve as the foundation for India’s epidemic laws.

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