The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020: An Ordinance that hit the nail on the head

The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020: An Ordinance that hit the nail on the head
Health Professionals

It is common knowledge that the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 was promulgated with the intention to provide protection for the ‘healthcare service personnel’.

However, a lesser known fact is that the said Ordinance may be considered as an outcome of the directions issued by the Supreme Court.

In light of that fact, it is pertinent to note a PIL entertained by the Court titled Dr. Jerryl Banait v. Union of India. Therein, a medical professional had filed a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution on the need to ensure the availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Furthermore, the Court took note of the uncommon occupational hazards that the healthcare personnel were compelled to put up with. In view thereof, the Court directed the Government of India to provide necessary police security to the doctors and medical staff in hospitals and places where patients who have been diagnosed or where patients suspected of COVID-19 are housed.

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Moreover, the Court condemned the violence (which took place in Indore, which shall be discussed hereunder) and directed the Centre to take necessary action against those persons who obstruct and commit any offence in relation to the performance of duties by doctors, medical staff, etc. who are deputed to contain COVID-19.

At this juncture, it is submitted that a bare perusal of the said Ordinance would shed light on the aforementioned directions of the Court. In this regard, special emphasis is laid on Section 2B, which states,

"No person shall indulge in any act of violence against a healthcare service personnel or cause any damage or loss to any property during an epidemic."

For the purpose of clarity, the term ‘property’ specifically refers to a clinical establishment, quarantine facility, etc.

Further, Section 3(2) provides for punishment (for commission or abetment of an act of violence) with imprisonment for a term of not less than three months, which may extend to five years and a fine of not less than Rs. 50,000, which may extend to Rs. 2,00,000. The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 stipulated a punishment with simple imprisonment upto one month and a fine upto Rs. 200 only.

Furthermore, Section 3(3) provides for punishment (for grievous hurt caused to a healthcare service personnel) with imprisonment for a term of not less than six months, which may extend to seven years and a fine of not less than Rs. 1,00,000, which may extend to Rs. 5,00,000. In such a case, the Act stipulated a punishment with imprisonment upto six months and a fine upto Rs. 1,000.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned, regard must also be had to the Madhya Pradesh Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020. The said Regulations were issued by the Governor of Madhya Pradesh in exercise of the powers conferred under Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 (the said Principal Act).

As a side note, it is pertinent to note that the said Principal Act is a Central Act which finds its place in Schedule VII under Item No. 6 of the State List (that is, Public Health and Sanitation). It thus becomes evident that the said Principal Act is a pre-independence law dealing with a subject-matter which evidently falls in the State List. Further, the reason as to how such a legislation has made it to its 123rd year is on account of the law laid down in Article 372 (1), which states that all pre-independence laws shall continue to remain in force unless amended or repealed by a competent legislature.

Prior to dealing with the said Regulations, it is pertinent to highlight an incident which took place in Tatpatti Bakhal, Indore on April 4, where a medical staff had gone to screen certain persons for Coronavirus and were attacked and pelted with stones by certain miscreants. The medical staff had endeavored to do so in order to quarantine the relatives and acquaintances of a COVID-19 patient, thereby meaning that the said location was not selected at random. Further, just days later, Indore emerged as the epicenter of COVID-19 in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

Two provisions of the Regulations are of great significance to the present article.

Provision No. 7 of the said Regulations states that where an occasion arises wherein an occupier of any premises or any individual (suspected/confirmed with COVID-19) refuses to take measures for prevention or treatment of the said disease or refuses to co-operate with the surveillance personnel, the concerned District Magistrate may pass an appropriate order under Section 133 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. For the purpose of clarity and keeping in mind the present context, Section 133 of the CrPC empowers the District Magistrate to remove any unlawful obstruction or nuisance from any public place.

Further, Provision No. 10 empowers the concerned District Magistrate to penalize any person found violating any of the provisions laid down in the said Regulations.

Therefore, applying the aforementioned provisions to the incident which took place in Indore, it would become evident that the said Regulations were competent to deal with the said incident.

However, by no stretch of imagination does the author seek to imply that the Ordinance passed by the Centre was not required merely because the Regulations already existed. The purpose sought to be achieved is to understand how the said Ordinance came to be.

In drawing things to a close, the said Ordinance deserves appreciation considering the fact that the Indian Medical Association (IMA) and medical bodies have publicly hailed it.

Before departing from the present article, the author wishes to quote Dr. Neeraj Gupta, Professor in the Department of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Machine at the Safdarjung Hospital (New Delhi) who states in verbatim,

“the ordinance is a balm to the aches of medical warriors and a valuable step towards the right direction… I wish it remains permanent for non-COVID times as well”.

Further, if the said Ordinance is indeed approved by way of a resolution (as per the law laid down in Article 123), there is a strong probability that valuable time of India’s medical staff might not be wasted away by ‘White Alert’ or ‘Black Day’ protests.

The author is an Advocate practicing before the Supreme Court of India.

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