Coronavirus: Legal angle

Reading time: 6-8 minutes.

“No epidemic is local” is one of the most thought provoking remarks once made by Belgian Microbiologist Pitor Piot and now the milieu is such that the virus, popularly known as the Coronavirus or 2019-nCoV,  first discovered in the 1960s and named after the Latin word ‘corona’ (meaning crown) due to its shape, is spreading exponentially. As of February 6, 2020, the total number of persons who are suspected to be infected stands at 28,344 with 565 deaths around the globe.

The virus spreading trans-border has already affected 26 Countries, making it the third most sprawled contagion after SARs & MERs. India too, is witnessing the adversity of the outbreak as till date, 3 positive cases – all from Kerala – have been reported along with 5123 people being kept under surveillance and 1 under isolation.

What is coronavirus?

The outbreak was first zeroed down when, on the 31st December of 2019, the government of China informed the WHO about the plethora of pneumonia cases particularly in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province. The WHO on the 9th of January, 2020 reported the cause of the contagion to be a virus called Coronavirus.  

Scientists tracked the inception of the virus to be bat,making it cognate of SARs (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) & MERs (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which too originated from mammals. However, the situation gets more critical with nCoV as in case of SARs and MERs, the virus, to develop the ability to infect humans, first had to attack an intermediary host such as camel or civet cats, but the Coronavirus is capable of infecting humans directly from the respiratory tract of Bats.

How it affects the body

The coronaviruses belong to the group of RNA (ribonucleic acid) viruses responsible for bodily proteins. However, RNA lacks the capability of filtering the hostiles due to its rapid mutative process. The outbreak leading to the sixth World Health Emergency is alleged to be an airborne contagion spreading through ‘close contacts’ such as through cough or sneezes. The symptoms are common cough, fever, and difficulty in breathing, etc. Tough till now there have been no signs of vaccines, scientists at the National Institutes of Health along with several companies are striving for an antidote.

Steps taken by the Indian government

The government, post-detection of the third infected person in Kerala, has set up a task force to counter the outbreak. The State government of Kerala declared the 2019-nCoV to be a “state-calamity” as all the positive cases in India hail from Kerala. Moreover, the Indian government airlifted 645 people from China which includes 7 Maldivians, and all of them tested negative for the virus. The government sought to expand the thermal screening of passengers from 7airports to 20, along with an increase in the number of laboratories where the virus can be tested. The check is not only limited to aerodrome; the Mumbai Port Trust been directed to disallow shore permits to vessel setting in from China until health clearance. Following the Central government guidelines, a 24×7 call centre has been made operational along with rapid response teams deployed at key points such as Airports.

Laws in India regarding such epidemics

The legal framework in India is dicey when it comes to the prevention of infectious diseases. It is conceded that though the country has several tattered legal measures to counter epidemic, it is bereft of comprehensive legislation barring the archaic Epidemic Act, 1897.

The plague epidemic in Bombay led to the enactment of the 1897 legislation. The Act with its four sections, empowers the government to adopt transient measures & regulations to preclude the spread of the diseases along with imposing a penalty for disobedience of the regulations.

Additionally, Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) also warrants for punishment when a person contravenes an order promulgated by a public servant, thereby inculpating any person who contravenes any order which prescribes for non-spreading of infectious diseases.

On the other hand, The New Delhi Municipal Council Act, 1994 is a more broad-gauged Act when it comes to the prevention of communicable diseases & infections. Chapter XV of the Act which covers Sanitation & Public Heath provides for measures to prevent ‘dangerous diseases’, which is further defined under section 2(10)(b) of the Act empowering the Chairperson to declare a particular disease as dangerous via notification. The Act puts an obligation to inform about any dangerous disease along with measures such as removal of patients suffering from infectious diseases, disinfection & destruction of infected structures. The legislation empowers the Chairperson to impose special measures in case of an outbreak beyond the contemplation of the Act and hence makes it sufficient for exigencies.

The 1994 Act also provides measures which are to be taken to preclude any contagion such as disinfection of building before letting, an obligation to dispose of infected articles only after disinfection, and also empowers the Chairperson to restrict the sale of food & drinks.

Scope of improvement in medical laws

In India, there is immense scope of improvement in medical laws. At the rudimentary level, it is sine qua non to enact a comprehensive central legislation which not only comes into effect when there is an outbreak but also provides sufficiently for forestalling such outbreaks. Moreover, the complexity demands a balance between intellectual property rights and the rights of poor persons to have access to high priced antidotes.

Further, it is required that improvement in medical laws would also seek to fill the institutional voids as a result of which illiterate persons squander their monies on the services which are free of cost and also stand in a vulnerable position due to dearth of knowledge. It has also been evidenced that India holds a poor record regarding communication of risks of outbreaks and information to the World Health Organization which it is legally bound to do under the WHA54.14. Hence, it must be made compulsory for the government to disclose information at the first instance of detection.

It is a fact that while countering an epidemic, public health must be given primacy. However, legislation should also protect the data which is collected from the patients, which if not done, would infringe the right to privacy and hence a proper guideline as to the collection, dissemination, protection, and usages of data must be laid down to preserve confidentiality.

The development in the legal framework must also reflect the changes that were made in International Health Regulations, 2005 with regard to building a system where local governments hold the authority to respond rapidly without falling into the dicey floor of red-tapism. Compulsory disposition by patients should be brought into effect, which may go to the extent of forceful examination and if found positive, the person is to be hospitalized. Hence, what is required is that there must be a proper balance between the rights of individuals and endeavour of the State in securing public health.

Conclusion

At present, it is difficult to contemplate the anti-dote to 2019-nCoV. However, the government, with immediate effect, must enact a legislation to counter such exigencies more efficiently. The legislation is required to define the contours within which the officials should exercise their powers while dealing with an outbreak. It is a fact that archaic legislation like The Epidemic Act, 1897 can no longer be effective.

Thus, instead of relying on contingency measures, a permanent legal backing must be created which not only addresses the exigencies faced during an outbreak but also prevents and provides for measures which prevent such contagion.

Author: Ishan Mazumder from West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata.

Editor: Ismat Hena from Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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