Epidemic Disease Disaster

On 31st December 2019, Wuhan reported a number of pneumonia cases that eventually lead to the identification of the novel Coronavirus. In no time, this disease found its way to different parts of the world. It was responsible for a record number of positive cases and multiple deaths. The lack of a vaccine, resulted in a huge impact on a global level, World Health Organization (WHO) declared it as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). Coronavirus was officially declared as a pandemic worldwide.
India remained untouched from the virus in spite it being a close neighbor of China until the students who had just returned from Wuhan were tested positive. It started testing passengers flying in from different parts of the world only after fourteen Italians in Jaipur were tested positive. Most reported cases were of people who had returned from foreign travel. A couple of positive cases resulted in a domino effect. The situation became much worse, such, that a traditional colonial legislation was brought to the limelight. Its application highlighted the defects of the act. In this article, I’ll throw light on the many defects the act has and amendments that need to be incorporated. India was completely unprepared for its fight with coronavirus. Many states have enforced the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to contain the spread of the virus.
History of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897
The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 carries a colonial baggage. It was introduced during a time when Colonial India witnessed over 10 million deaths due to the disease that had its birth in Hong Kong.3 Western medicine proved to be largely inefficient against the Bubonic Plague of 1896. The neglect of the Colonial Government cost them hundreds of lives each day. The Plague’s mortality rate of 60 percent made it obligatory for the Government to not only find a cure, but also control the spread of the disease.

Looking at the magnitude of damage, a Plague Committee was constituted under the chairmanship of Prof. T.R. Frasor, Professor of Materia Medica at the University of Edinburgh.4 They made a report that documented the effect of the disease and the means to curtail transmission. The report concluded that the disease was highly contagious and recognized human transmission as a means of spread. The commission recommended necessary preventive measures to disinfect and evacuate infected places, to put a control over mass transit, and to improve sanitary conditions. The commission also suggested strengthening of public health services and development of laboratories. It was John Woodburn who first introduced the Epidemic Diseases Bill to the Governor General and the Council. The Governor and the Council hastily passed the bill in February 1897 to have better control over the situation. The executive of the presidency towns had discretion to adopt any measures that could aid in limiting the transmission. The extraordinary nature of the act was considered well suited to the extraordinary situation at hand. Various researches were conducted, Plague Research Committees were formed. Their findings showed that the chief cause of the spread was lack of hygiene and poor sanitation across the country. Plague Research Laboratory was also set up in Bombay, to find a vaccine for the plague.
The Present Scenario
According to the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, the act is enforced to control and prevent an epidemic. The silence of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 speaks volumes about its defects. The most basic defect is that there is no definition of the word ’epidemic’. What constitutes as an epidemic? A definition is essential to show exactly when the act is applicable. For example, the Disaster Management Act, 2005 includes the provisions for how and when the act will be applicable. Further, an epidemic and a pandemic have different meanings. An epidemic is defined as “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” The term pandemic relates to geographic spread and is used

to describe a disease that affects a whole country or the entire world. This difference must be highlighted in the definition. WHO does recognize several diseases as epidemic or pandemic prone, such as Ebola, Yellow Fever, Plague, Spanish Flu, Cholera, Influenza, SARS, Dengue Fever, Chikungunya etc. However, a developing tropical country like India, can have many diseases that are prone to its geographical nature and the name of such a disease might not find its way on the WHO outbreak website. Thus, a definition cut out for our country is a necessity. The act gives discretionary powers to the government, what if the lack of a definition is misused by our power hungry representatives. The haste of the Colonial Government is very evident in this poorly drafted act because a legislation that is supposed to control epidemic or pandemic having a global impact, only has four sections. Currently, the act is giving both general and specific power to the government to take discretionary measures when the law is insufficient. One such power is segregation of infected people from the healthy. Colonial Government misused this vast power to arrest freedom fighters. What if history repeats itself? There is a never ending political and religious feud going on in the country. Who is to say that the government might not take a page from the books of the Colonial Government?
Every act requires a legal framework that specifies the duties of the government and the rights of the people. An epidemic may be an emergency in its true sense but it’s not an emergency as per the constitution. What happens to the basic rights of the people? Can they be suspended without a declaration of an emergency? The act makes no mention of the people’s rights because it was created by a government that had no regard for the rights of the people. It is a policing act rather than a safeguard. The exact duties of the authorities, the extent of rights available or suspended, modes to enforce or infringed rights ought to be mentioned. Further, the exact method of how and when the act applies needs to be jotted down.
The act is very outdated for this day and age. It has completely neglected the scientific aspect. Smallpox, once an epidemic, is now completely eradicated because of science. Prevention
Ibid. of diseases umbrellas scientific methods to help fight the disease. The act should provide for scientific advancement for disease at hand by setting up special laboratories and form research groups of doctors eager to find a cure. If a disease, prone to a pandemic or an epidemic is communicable, it should be made obligatory for the medical practitioners to notify the government whether it’s a public hospital or a private hospital. A notification benefits in surveillance of the diseased and the potential harm they can cause to ones close to them. All the hospitals in an area might not be equipped to treat a disease, the government must make it their duty to provide aid to as many hospitals as possible so more number of hospitals can provide their expertise and care.
The Supreme Court believes that private laboratories must be philanthropic. While hearing a PIL (Shashank Deo Sudhi v. Union of India & Ors.), a Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and Ravindra Bhat of the Supreme Court passed an interim order requiring that all private laboratories conducting COVID-19 tests do so free of cost, similar to the government laboratories.11 This interim order raises the question of the roles played by the court system, how they work and what decision making powers they have during such times. This too remains unexplained.
It’s a great decision that India has taken at the cost of its economy in order to protect the health of its citizens. As good as a step it is, the unorganized sector suffers a lot from such an economic setback. The government should create transparent relief funds that aim to benefit the economically challenged. Currently, the government is allegedly helping the unorganized sector with money and ration but the news coming from these sectors speaks otherwise.Thus, transparency in allocation of such resources should be mandatory especially when the government asks the people to contribute. They have a right to know how their money is being utilized.
National Heath Bill was introduced in 2009. This bill voices the need of a better act with respect to the health of the citizens. It incorporates everything that has been missing in the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. The bill recognizes health as a fundamental human right and states that every citizen has a right to the highest attainable standard of health and well-being.12 It lays Avani Bansal, “Free COVID-19 Testing: Does the Supreme Court’s view on ‘Philanthropy’ have a legal basis?”
down the obligations of the government authorities, it calls for respect of the rights of health care providers, and for the establishment of National level and State level Public Health Boards, it provides for a mechanism to monitor the government and many other provisions that are entirely absent in the colonial legislation.
Health is a very important aspect in a man’s life and it shouldn’t be compromised just because the legislature couldn’t create an act for the same. COVID-19 is a wakeup call that illustrates the desperate need for a new and a better legislation. Epidemic Diseases Act doesn’t make a huge difference and thus, I believe that it should be repealed. The amendments and additions that need to be made in the act are all provided in the National Health Bill. Instead of amending the Epidemic Diseases Act and providing for similar provisions in the bill, the act should be repealed and National Health Bill should be passed to form a legislation. What amounts to a pandemic or an epidemic should be well defined. Provisions for proper rights of the people should be mentioned. Rights of the people and those of health care providers must be respected. It should be more of a safeguard for the people than a policing act. The government has taken commendable measures to tackle the problem and such measures should be itemized as duties of the government. I hope to see a tomorrow where India is better equipped with a law that can battle any disease that comes forth. I hope that the government stresses on the National Health Bill and its importance especially after the experience it has with the current disease.

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