Battling COVID-19 with a colonial-era law

Why govt. has taken recourse to Epidemic Diseases Act, 1987, in March 2020

March 28, 2020 11:14 pm | Updated 11:14 pm IST - HYDERABAD

On March 21, the State government invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act that was passed on February 4, 1897, in Imperial Calcutta (Kolkata). A few days earlier, the West Bengal government also invoked the same Act to arm itself against the COVID-19 pandemic. Other Indian States took recourse to the same Act that was created at the height of terror over bubonic plague in Bombay (Mumbai).

Why Epidemics Act 1897?

In the absence of any new legislation to fight epidemics, Indian States had to resort to this colonial-era law to manage the outbreak. The law arms the State with emergency powers that allow it to carry out search operations as well as penalise people violating the provisions of the law. The law was created at a time when the disease was ill-understood. An immunisation programme used Haffkine’s Prophylactics which was first tested on its creator, Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine. The magical potion used 1.5 kg of meat, 25 cc of Hydrochloric Acid and 60 grammes of caustic soda to extract the immunising agent. But before that, thousands died every year and the panic led to many people fleeing the cities and taking the disease with them to their native places. The exchange from the report on Indian Plague Commission shows the problem of people fleeing quarantine existed from that time:

“When a segregated patient gets plague, does he go back to the camp, or does he go and hide himself?”

“I know that we have taken out cases from these segregated people — contact people —, and sent them to hospital.”

It was to tackle this problem that the Epidemic Diseases Act was created.

Is the law enough?

In the first instance, it is enough. The police officials who are beating up people or punishing them cannot be hauled to court. The ED Act gives them protection: “Protection to persons acting under Act. 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 States also invoked Section 188 of Indian Penal Code (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) to take care of the medical emergency.

Then, to deal with an epidemic of this scale in a globalised world, the antiquated laws are surely not enough. The States have also invoked Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 to deal with people spreading fake news: “Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.”

What now?

If the government had followed the National Disaster Management Guidelines (NDMG) of 2008, the situation would have been different. India would have had a comprehensive Act where it would not have had to take recourse to a 123-year-old law when airports didn’t exist.

“The Epidemic Diseases Act was enacted in 1897 and needs to be repealed. This Act does not provide any power to the Centre to intervene in biological emergencies. It has to be substituted by an Act which takes care of the prevailing and foreseeable Public health needs including…international spread of diseases,” says the NDMG-2008. As health is a State subject, without an overarching law for medical emergencies like this, many States are caught off guard. And the response has been piecemeal.

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