COVID- 19 or popularly known as Coronavirus has become a world pandemic affecting almost 3 Million people and taking the lives of over 2,00,000 people . The world has not seen such a pandemic in over a 100 years, some scientist even says that this epidemic is far worse the World War II, and if not controlled it will take more lives than the lives lost in the World War II. This epidemic has proven to be more dangerous than the outbreak of Bubonic plague in Bombay. This pandemic has put a halt to the major commercial activities of the world and for the first time in India, railways had to cancel trains because of this outbreak. So, looking to the severity of the virus spread, the Indian government brought into action the 123 years old legislation which is called The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897.
The 1896 Bubonic plague outbreak of Bombay which gradually spread to most parts of the country was the time when this act was enacted by the then British parliament to control the outbreak. In early 1897, a speech was delivered by Queen Victoria addressing the outbreak and it is when it was directed by her to bring a piece of legislation that would be strict and would help in controlling the outbreak and hence it was the birth of the 1897 legislation. The strict measures in the act were said to be kept for the public welfare, but the facts were contrary to the promises that were made by the British government. It is the most famous fact that this act in the name of public welfare was used to imprison the freedom fighters.
In the year of 2017, the Indian government came up with the bill called “Public health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bioterrorism and Disasters) Bill; this bill was introduced to the floor of parliament because, in case of a public health emergency, this bill would become a guiding force for the centre and state authorities to manage such public health emergency, but the sad face of parliament, the bill could not be passed and remains under lockdown. However, the only option left with the Indian government is to implement the act of 1897 and amend it in such a possible way that it can be more effective and efficient.
According to Section 2 of the act states that when the state government is satisfied that the state or any part thereof is visited by or threatened with an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease; and if it thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law are insufficient for the purpose then the state may take, or require or empower any person to take some measures and by public notice prescribe such temporary regulations to be observed by the public. The state government may prescribe regulations for the inspection of persons travelling by railway 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 empowers the central government for inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port and for detention thereof, or of any person intending to sail therein, or arriving thereby. Section 3 prescribes penalty for disobeying any regulation or order made under the Act in accordance with section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. Under this provision, a punishment of 6 months imprisonment or 1,000 rupees fine or both shall be meted out to the person who disobeys any order under the Act. Section 4 mentions that no suit or other legal proceeding shall lie against any person for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this Act.
The major problem rather a limitation with this act is that the act a century old act and a lot has changed in the past century, the act is not up to the governing standards of the modern world. The act is silent on the definition of the dangerous epidemic disease. The act is vague on the territorial limits of the country and also needs amendment to the penal provision for the violation. The act also does not talk about the distribution of the vaccines and drugs or implementation of the response mechanism, there are many such loopholes in this act that the government has to look up to and timely amend those loopholes so that the act can be made real effective in today’s time. Karnataka became the first Indian state to implement this act.
Moreover, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, there have been instances of the most critical service providers i.e. members of healthcare services being targeted and attacked by miscreants, thereby obstructing them from doing their duties. Members of the Medical community, even as they continue to perform relentlessly round the clock and save human lives, have unfortunately become the most vulnerable victims as they have been perceived by some as carriers of the virus. This has led to cases of their stigmatization and ostracization and sometimes worse, acts of unwarranted violence and harassment. Such a situation tends to hamper the medical community from performing their duties to their optimum best and maintaining their morale, which is a critical need in this hour of the national health crisis. While healthcare service personnel are duty bound to serve without discrimination, the cooperation and support from society is a fundamental need for them to perform their duties with confidence . The government in wake of such incidents has directed the state governments to amend the Epidemic disease act, 1897, so as to protect the health workers and their property.
An ordinance was passed on 22nd April 2020 to amend the provisions of the act so as to provide protection to the healthcare workers. Violence in the ordinance was defined with the inclusion of harassment and physical injury and damage of the property. Further, healthcare service personnel include public and clinical healthcare service providers such as doctors, nurses, paramedical workers and community health workers and any other persons empowered to prevent this outbreak. In certain instances, penal provisions can also be invoked. The amendment makes acts of violence cognizable and non-bailable offences. Commission or abetment of such acts of violence shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of three months to five years and with fine of Rs.50,000/- to Rs.2,00,000/-. In case of causing grievous hurt, imprisonment shall be for a term six months to seven years and with fine of Rs.1,00,000/- to Rs.5,00,000/-. In addition, the offender shall also be liable to pay compensation to the victim and twice the fair market value for damage of property .
But still, the question remains the same, can this century old act help India to come out of this crisis or the Indian parliament made a mistake back in 2017 in not passing the bill that could have changed the scenario, because the 2017 bill was well equipped with the necessities of today’s time, since we have no such luxury of a modern day act, India has to win the battle with century old act. Once the situation comes under control and the battle against the pandemic has been won, the Indian parliament should think of enacting new legislation to counter such situations in the near future.