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Novel Coronavirus A Legal Challenge

After scrutinizing the alarming conditions in the world from the outbreak of the corona virus (COVID 19) the WHO few days back called this virus a pandemic. This came after the disease had swept into almost 114 countries affecting lacs of people and claiming 4000 lives. This was the first time that the organisation had called a disease pandemic after the H1N1 in 2009. It started off from China and is at its peak in Italy where the virus has claimed more than 3,400 lives and the ministry says the ratio of people dying from the virus is 1 life in 10 minutes.

India witnessed its first case in Kerala in Thrissur district and then gradually the virus kept spreading all over the country that is in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Maharashtra with the state of Maharashtra having the highest number of cases with 45 people who have been tested positive and increasing.

The authorities have resorted to section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973 that authorizes the Magistrate of any particular area to issue an order to prohibit the assembly of four or more people in an area. The states have closed down all educational institutions and imposed a ban on social gatherings too. The central government has also canceled all international flights that are flying outside or inside India for a period of one week starting from 22nd March 2020.

Assuming the global catastrophic risk, the Prime Minister of the country, Narendra Modi came out to address the country on 19th March where in he appealed to the citizens to remain in their homes and avoid going to hospitals or performing a surgery until it's not of prime need.

To deal with these issues and to curb this risk as soon as possible every country needs a legal framework. A law which authorizes the authorities to take reasonable steps in relation to the control of this pandemic.

Let us now sneak into the existing laws that our country has which provides to the center as well as state governments the appropriate force against the diseased person that is to put them in quarantine or to penalize the people or institutes that may violate the regulations made by the appropriate governments. We shall also deal with the limitations that the current framework has and provide some measures to make the framework a worth one in this period of time.

We all have been hearing that the central government as well as the state government have invoked the provisions of Epidemic Diseases Act to curb the menace going on by this novel Coronovirus (COVID19). Let us take a detailed view about what exactly the Act which was prepared way before independence speaks about.

Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897

A plague called Bubonic Plague had struck Bombay in the late nineteenth century and had claimed thousands of lives and in order to restrict the plague from spreading all over, the then government prepared a law named Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 which came into force on February 4th 1897. This Act made by the then Parliament is one of the smallest legislation's consisting of 4 sections.
The anti-plague activities that is to reduce the number of people becoming prey to the epidemic involved police search operations, isolation of the sick (quarantine), detention in camps of travelers and forced evacuation of residents in parts of the city and demolition of infected places.

The 1st section of the Act deals with title and extent where it makes clear that the legislation will be extended to the whole of India except the territories which immediately before the 1st November, 1956 were comprised in Part B states.

Section 2 of the Act delegates the power to the state government/union territory when at any time it feels that a part of its jurisdiction has been hit or threatened by any disease and there are no provisions in any other law to provide measures to limit the spread of the same, the concerned government can authorize or empower any person to take such measures by public notices. It also prescribes regulations to be obeyed by the public or institution or any class of persons which may be necessary to curb the outbreak of that particular disease.

This framework confers the power to the government to make provisions for the inspection of persons traveling through railways or otherwise and the segregation, in hospital, temporary accommodation or otherwise, of persons suspected by the inspecting officer of being infected with any such disease.

Section 2A of the same Act empowers the central government to inspect any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port and any person who is intending to sail or has sailed therein.
Section 3 prescribes the penalty that is to be imposed on persons who may disobey any regulations or order passed by the concerned authority or any person who may be assigned the power under this Act in accordance with section 188of IPC.

Section 188 of IPC, 1860. is Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant.

This section makes disobedience of an order promulgated by a public servant lawfully empowered to do so in the public interest punishable. It refers to acts that though prima facie lawful, may in the particular circumstances show a tendency to endanger the public tranquility by obstruction, annoyance, or injury, or which cause, or tend to cause any such risk to any person.

Section 4 of the Act makes it clear that no suit or other legal proceeding shall be made against any person for anything done in good faith intended to be done under this Act.

Limitations of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897

The Act came into existence 123 years ago and keeping in mind the revolution that has taken place since then it is nothing but being ignoramus to still be dependent on this Act. This is the era of changing priorities and thus this Act has major limitations in its own way. Lifestyle of people has changed gradually and people travel the whole world. Some for work and some for adventure and the mode of traveling is more extensively by Air compared to Sea traveling modes. The major limitation that comes up here is that the Act only mentions traveling through ships or vessels. Migrating to urban cities, having pets at home has become a tradition in today's world. And so the Epidemic Diseases Act needs modifications in the changing scenario.

This Act does not take into consideration the scientific methods that are prevalent now to curb or prevent the outbreak of the epidemic but deals with legal methods that were the only option to them way back in 1897. As the Act for example talks about segregation of patients in hospitals or quarantining them but is silent on the measures required to curb the diseases that is the vaccines or setting up of labs to test the diseases and licensing those labs.

Definition of dangerous epidemic disease: The Act does not specify a clear definition of the dangerous epidemic disease and the bases on which the authorities can decide whether a epidemic is dangerous or not or whether it is dangerous on the basis of magnitude of the problem, the severity of the problem, the age of the population affected or its potential to spread.

The punishment prescribed under the Act that is under section 188 of IPC would not generally compensate the damage a particular person possessing the disease would have caused to others by violating the regulations made by the authority. Section 188 of IPC provides for 6 months of imprisonment or fine or both. For example in case a person possessing a life threatening disease moves out of quarantine and gets in touch with the other person and the latter dies, a punishment of 6 month would be termed really less.

The Act is silent on the rights of the individuals and as stated before it completely focuses on the powers of the state as well as the central government. It does not take into consideration the privacy of the individual that whether the identity of the person suffering from the epidemic disease could be revealed or not as this may have considerable effect on the after life of the individual when he starts his life again once he gets healed

Disaster Management Act, 2005

The Center in order to curb the novel coronavirus has also invoked the provisions of Disaster Management Act, 2005. The Center has invoked section 10 of the said Act which deals with the monitoring and implementation of the national plan prepared by the ministry. This sections confers power on the Union Home Secretary as he is the chairman of the National Executive Committee. But recently he had delegated these powers to the Health and Family Welfare Ministry which directed the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority to make availability of surgical masks and sanitizers due to the ongoing novel Coronavirus.

Recommendations for improvement of legislation. (Epidemic Diseases Act,1897)

Depending on a law which is made 123 years ago is like asking a man aged 123 years to send an email instead of posting a letter both unable to cope with the basic requirements of today's life. The country since independence has come up with various health laws some of them became a law while some are still Bills that need to be passed. One such draft is the National Health Bill, 2009 Which attempts to ensure a legal framework for providing health services to citizens during extreme conditions through a collaboration between the centre and state. Such bill needs to be passed by the government and all the states need to adopt the same.

Various states have their own health laws like the state of Madras, Punjab, Maharashtra and Goa. These states have their own provisions relating to the privacy of patients dealing with life threatening diseases. For example the laws in Goa allow the authorities to disclose the name of the person dealing with HIV (Aids). The government of Himachal Pradesh made provisions for compulsory vaccination by amending the Epidemic Diseases Act. So it's fair that the priorities of one state may differ from other state but it's time that a uniform or a common law should be formulated, which makes all states to come under a roof and fight a disease.

Section 2 of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 provides that if the state government is satisfied if the ordinary provisions of law are insufficient to deal with the dangerous epidemic disease it may empower any person to take such measures. Here any person is a very vague term and the Act needs to specify as to who should be empowered. India has eventually evolved in the field of science and medicine and has professionals in the same field who can be authorized.

The centre should come up with Epidemic Disease Control board which may tackle the emergencies coming up on the countries related to Epidemic. The board should be given the power to decide whether a particular disease has the capacity to threat the country or not. The board should consist of luminaries in the field of science and medicine.

Conclusion
To combat against such belligerent situation a nation requires an adequate legal framework which provides the authority appropriate force to fight against such pandemic diseases. Our country is trying its best to save its citizens from becoming a prey to this novel Coronavirus but it needs to make the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 more staunch. As this Act is the base on which the whole procedure to fight back depends.

Nobody can deny that the Government is doing its best to save the precious life Of its citizens but to reduce it from spreading its we who can do it. Its time that we show some solidarity towards saving life of each other. Let's act as responsible citizens for the sake of humanity.

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