The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 was enacted to improve the prevention of severe epidemic diseases. When there is a threat or outbreak of a hazardous epidemic disease, the Act allows both the federal and state governments to take action and issue restrictions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was critical to have a law in place that protects healthcare service professionals from violence, including physical and emotional harassment, as well as property damage.
The President promulgated the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 on the 22nd day of April, 2020, under clause (1) of Article 123 of the Constitution, because Parliament was not in session and urgent legislation was required in this regard. The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Bill, 2020, which seeks to replace the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 (Ord. 5 of 2020), provides for –– conferral of concurrent powers on the Central Government and the State Government to take any measures necessary to prevent the outbreak or spread of an epidemic.
On September 14, 2020, the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Bill, 2020 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha. It modifies the 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act. The Act aims to keep deadly epidemic diseases from spreading further. The Bill modifies the Act to include protections for healthcare workers fighting epidemic diseases and increases the central government’s capabilities to prevent disease spread.
An ‘act of violence’ under the Bill is defined as any of the following acts committed against a healthcare service personnel: I harassment affecting living or working conditions, (ii) harm, injury, hurt, or danger to life, (iii) obstruction in the discharge of duties, and (iv) loss or damage to the healthcare service personnel’s property or documents. Regarding the epidemic, property comprises I clinical establishments, (ii) quarantine facilities, (iii) mobile medical units, and (iv) any other property in which a healthcare service professional has a direct stake.
WHY DO WE NEED THIS BILL?
The unique coronavirus epidemic has sparked widespread anxiety about everyone’s health around the world. Because the virus spreads through human contact, everyone in India must adhere to the social distancing idea. Since the beginning, health staff has been at the center of the crisis. They have been attending to the health problems of all afflicted people, as well as conducting frequent testing to determine who is infected.
While administering treatment or doing testing, they are in direct contact with the patient. They are unable to limit human contact to avoid becoming sick. While acknowledging these medical personnel’ sacrifices, the Prime Minister referred to them as “health warriors.” They were also liked by the citizens, who demonstrated sympathy with them by banging utensils. This law was enacted with the health warriors’ best interests in mind.
KEY POINTS IN THE AMENDMENT PROVISIONS
Protection for healthcare workers and property damage: The bill states that no one can: I commit or aid in the commission of an act of violence against a healthcare worker, or (ii) aid in or cause property damage or loss during an epidemic. A violation of this provision is punishable by a sentence of three months to five years in prison and a fine of Rs 50,000 to two lakh rupees. With the permission of the Court, the victim may compound this offence. Furthermore, if an act of violence against a healthcare service provider causes grave harm, the perpetrator will face a sentence of six months to seven years in jail.
Compensation: Those convicted of crimes under the Bill will be required to compensate those who have been injured while working in the healthcare system. In the event of property damage or loss, the victim will be compensated double the amount of the damaged or lost property’s fair market value, as decided by the Court. If the convicted person does not pay the compensation, it will be recovered as a land revenue arrear under the Revenue Recovery Act of 1890.
Investigation: Cases filed under the Bill shall be investigated by a police officer with the level of Inspector or above. The inquiry must be completed within 30 days following the First Information Report’s registration.
Trial: The investigation or trial should be completed within a year. If it is not completed within this time frame, the Judge must keep track of the reasons for the delay and extend the deadline. The time term, however, cannot be extended for more than six months at a time. Unless the opposite is proven, the Court will presume that a person who causes grave harm to a healthcare service worker is guilty of the act.
Power of Central Government: During an epidemic, the central government has the authority to regulate I the inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port, and (ii) the detention of any individual planning to move from the port, according to the Act. The bill gives the federal government more authority over the inspection of any bus, rail, goods truck, ship, vessel, or aircraft departing or arriving at any land port, port, or aerodrome. In addition, the government has the authority to restrict the detention of anyone planning to travel via these means.
ANALYSIS OF THE ORDINANCE
The Amendment Bill essentially makes any attack on a healthcare practitioner or their property illegal and punishable. A healthcare service professional is defined as someone who comes into touch with infected individuals while performing their tasks to combat the epidemic and is thus at danger of getting the disease. It expressly names, (i) public and clinical healthcare practitioners such as doctors and nurses, (ii) anybody entitled under the Act to take steps to prevent the disease from spreading, and (iii) anyone else designated by the state government as such.
Section 3B of the Amendment Bill bans acts of violence against healthcare staff or causing any harm to healthcare personnel’s property in which they have a direct stake. A violation of these prohibitions would result in a penalty ranging from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 100,000. 2,00,000 or a six- to seven-year prison sentence.
The government introduced this Amendment Bill in response to several events involving attacks on healthcare workers who test and treat COVID-19 patients.
The government introduced this Amendment Bill in response to several events involving attacks on healthcare workers who test and treat COVID-19 patients. As the illness spread across India, so did the shame that accompanied it. Misinformation and a lack of understanding about how the disease transmitted led to the exclusion of suspected infected people, as well as doctors and other healthcare workers who were treating patients on the front lines. Following several such incidents in the early days of the statewide lockdown, the Indian Medical Organisation (IMA), a professional association of doctors, asked that the government pass a law to criminalise terrorism as soon as possible.
The Amendment Bill appears to imply that the only substantial hazards to medical personnel on duty are physical assault and property damage. These specialists, it may be argued, are at a significantly higher risk of catching the disease while treating patients.
This could be avoided if they had access to protective equipment that they could employ while treating patients. In case of Dr. Arushi Jain Vs. Union of India &Anr to ensure that all health workers, including doctors, nurses, ward boys, and other medical and paramedical professionals, have access to appropriate Personal Protective Equipment, such as sterile medical/Nitrile gloves, starch apparel, medical masks, goggles, face shield, respirators (i.e. N-95 Respirator Mask or Triple Layer Medical Mask or equivalent), shoe covers, head covers, and coveralls/gowns. The Amendment Bill is silent on this aspect of medical professional protection. IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA CIVIL ORIGINAL JURISDICTION Suo Motu Writ Petition (Civil) No.3 of 2021 A doctor filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Supreme Court in April 2020, asking the court to ensure that medical practitioners have access to personal protective equipment (PPE).There’s a bigger concern here about India’s lack of a legislative framework for dealing with public health emergencies. Rather than public-health interventions, the COVID-19 outbreak was largely met with law-and-order measures. A public health legal framework, in an ideal world, would cover all facets of a public health emergency, including health, sanitation, and law and order. The current pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink India’s response to public health crises, but the government has deferred responsibility for the time being.
When taken together, the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 and the Amendment Bill of 2020 provide a framework for the Central and State governments to issue ad hoc notifications and grant nearly unrestricted powers to halt the spread of an infectious and lethal outbreak. India requires an action plan, which outlines how to recognize an outbreak situation, quickly gather data about it, grid-isolate critically infected regions, collaborate with authorities at all levels of government, ensure continued supply of essential services and safety kits, ensure sanitation to control the spread of communicable diseases, and share information about the situation.
In the absence of such a plan, India has been left in the lurch, with the daily number of cases increasing for the sixth month in a row. At the same time, critical attention must be paid to the factual underpinnings of this current piece of legislation—the parliamentary admission that the government has kept no data on the deaths of its citizens, including frontline healthcare workers and allied workers, during the entire period of India’s lockdown, and the Centre’s refusal to disburse GST remittances.
Procedures for safe movement must also be devised, as well as continuous monitoring of disease patterns. For the time being, the Amendment Bill is only a stopgap measure that addresses an upsurge in violence against healthcare workers while ignoring India’s bigger challenges in reaction to COVID-19.
Amity Law School, Noida