Social media has always been a great source of information and the current happenings as well. It was the video of some common people throwing stones on the health care workers and in that way harassing and injuring them that went instantly viral and reached everyone in the country. And before anyone can know, the abuse of doctors and other healthcare workers, who are going extra miles to save the nation, caught everyone’s attention.
Reports of abuse, violence and harassment against the healthcare professionals are seen in a huge number even during these demanding times. In Indian news channels where the virus is always the focal point, there is at least one case of abuse against either doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers or any other healthcare worker. Healthcare professionals are being evicted from their houses because they are merely seen as suspected carriers of the virus.
On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the novel Coronavirus spread a ‘pandemic’. On the same day itself, state of Karnataka declared the Covid-19 an ‘epidemic’, becoming the first Indian state to do so. While Haryana State Government was the second state to declare it as an ‘epidemic’, the central government imposed a complete lockdown of 21 days in the country and Prime Minister of India suggested the state governments enforce the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 in their respective states. The advice was correct as well as required and the same was done by the authorities to save the country from the outbreak. But as it seems the Act is not sufficient to curb each and every effect of the virus outbreak in the country.
The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 came into force during the British Government. It was first enacted to tackle the bacteria plague that spread vigorously in Bombay (now Mumbai) and killed thousands of people leading the Indian population to fall drastically. The Act gives special power to the state as well as central government to make changes, form new rules, and take measures or to do anything which the government believes is necessary at the time of an outbreak by any dangerous epidemic disease.
About 123 years ago the Act was introduced in the country and since then there has not been any reason to make amends or any changes to the Act. But the world-dominating coronavirus got that covered too. After many complaints by the doctors and other medical staffs, the Union Cabinet on 22nd April approved the promulgation of the ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 thereby making any violence against the healthcare workers a cognizable and non-bailable offence. The president of India also gave assent to the ordinance. The amendments intend to end violence against the healthcare workers and maintain a positive atmosphere for the saviours of the country.
NEW AMENDMENTS TO THE EPIDEMIC DISEASE ACT, 1897
- Any incident of violence, harassment, physical hurt to the healthcare workers is not to be tolerated and will amount to an offence.
- The offence is cognizable and non-bailable. The offence is of serious degree and the guilty party can be arrested by police without any warrant. The investigation for such cases will be done within 30 days. Only with any authorized court order can the guilty party be released of jail.
- The sentence period ranges from 3 months to 5 years and the accused would face a fine of Rs 50,000 to Rs 2,00,000.
- In the case of grievous hurt, the accused can be penalized from Rs 1lakh to Rs 5 lakh. The accused can be sentenced from 6 months to 7 years in cases of grievous hurt to the healthcare professional working during the epidemic outbreak.
- Along with these provisions, a provision to maintain the safety of the property of healthcare personnel is also included in the amendments. The person causing damage to the vehicles or clinics of the healthcare workers would have to pay compensation that amounts twice the market value of the property damaged.
All the information regarding the new amendments in the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 was shared by the Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on a social media platform briefly after the meeting of the Cabinet Minister.
The amendments would unquestionably help to protect healthcare workers from violence against them. While the need of the hour was met, there are other spheres of COVID-19 outbreak which the aforesaid Act is unfortunately not able to cover. Inadequate health facilities, circulation of fake E-news regarding the disease, and other things are only worsening the current situation.
The Act is insufficient to deal with not only Coronavirus outbreak but any dangerous disease outbreak. The act itself does not define what an ‘epidemic’ disease means. A short Act comprising of 4 sections alone is expected to fight against such a deadly situation. If not sufficient, exploitation of the powers given in the Act is also done in the past. It seems as if the Act is not to shield the citizens from the epidemic but to give powers to the State. Wasn’t it the case with many reports and news updates of police using arbitrary power against the people who came out of their houses during the lockdown? The rights of the citizens are nowhere to found in the texts of the Act.
Considering the fact that COVID-19 is a pandemic, it has been confirmed in a large number of countries currently. Some countries among them are distinguishing themselves by handling the menace situation so well. To be certain, these countries have one thing in common. A well-formed and effective catastrophe management plan is what that is helping the countries to excel in such a challenging incident. Germany had around 1 lakh positive cases of Coronavirus but the country’s death rate has been startlingly low. The country is having around 3.5 lakh tests in a week and thereby catching people with the virus at a very early and the possibility of spread is therefore very low. Finland imposed a lockdown even before any death caused due to the outbreak in the country. And with a ‘hybrid strategy’, where it will gradually scale back the restrictions on public places and yet increase test runs to keep the virus at bay, Finland is ready to get back to a normal lifestyle. These countries and many other countries have already sat examples.
India certainly needs a great interference of legislation and judiciary to suppress the epidemic. More legal regulations along with systematic management plan are also a need of the hour. While one issue seems to be taken care of, there are many others still left to be dealt with at the earliest.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megha Jain is a first-year law student at Hidayatullah National Law University.
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