COVID-19: Need special legislation to deal exclusively with epidemics, say lawyers

Lawyers point out that the archaic Epidemics Diseases Act of 1897 and the Disaster Management Act of 2005, both of which have presently been invoked for the lockdown, are not enough to deal with a situation such as the current pandemic

Published - March 27, 2020 01:30 pm IST - CHENNAI

Multiple challenges posed by COVID-19 and unprecedented steps taken by the Centre and State governments to fight the pandemic have reinforced the need to enact a special legislation to deal exclusively with epidemics, say lawyers.

They point out that the only special law in force at present in the country is the colonial Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, a 122-year-old legislation which has just four provisions (Sections 1 to 4) that hardly give any power to the Centre on the issue.

Section 2 of the Act originally empowered the erstwhile Governor General to take “special measures and prescribe regulations” to deal with the outbreak of any “dangerous epidemic disease.” In 1937, the term ‘Governor General’ was replaced with State government. It was by invoking this archaic provision that the State government has now ordered the sealing of all district borders to prevent travel. However, when it comes to the Centre, the Act empowered the government only to the limited extent of inspecting a ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port.

“That’s precisely why the Union Home Ministry had now invoked the Disaster Management Act of 2005, a law passed after the devastation caused by tsunami in December 2004, to order a nationwide lockdown and impose several restrictions on public movement" pointed out advocate C. Kanagaraj. “This 2005 Act defines disaster to be a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence arising from natural or man-made causes. It does not contain niceties expected of a law that deals with public health issues such as an epidemic,” he explained.

Agreeing with him, advocate M. Velmurugan stated that the need of the hour was a legislation akin to the Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bio-terrorism and Disasters) Bill of 2017 drafted by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. This Bill had clear cut definitions for the terms “epidemic, isolation, quarantine, social distancing, public health emergency, public health emergency of international concern, ground crossing, disinfection, disinfection, deratting, decontamination,” and so on.

In February 2017, the Ministry had called for comments from all stakeholders on the draft Bill. “Then, several concerns were raised over the sweeping powers it envisaged for the State to subject a person to compulsory treatment even without consent. “The Bill also provided for repealing the shallow and outdated Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. Unfortunately, it was not enacted. Had it become a law by now, this would have been the appropriate legislation to be invoked to fight COVID-19,” he said.

The lawyer went on state: “The Disaster Management Act is basically a legislation aimed at addressing concerns caused due to cyclones and earthquakes. It may not be an appropriate law to dealt with public health issues such as an epidemic or a pandemic.”

He added, “After the threat of COVID-19 abates, our Parliamentarians should pay attention to the need for a new Act to fight epidemics and such a law should be the outcome of mammoth experience gathered by the governments in fighting the microscopic viruses.”

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