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Rajya Sabha Member and Senior Advocate P Wilson has written to Law Minster Ravi Shankar Prasad urging that the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 be amended so that attacks against health workers and the obstruction of the burial/cremation of COVID-19 victims are stringently penalised with imprisonment up to 7 years.
In his letter, Wilson points out that health workers, including doctors, nurses, hospital staff, lab technicians are frontline soldiers. “For our part we must ensure at the very least their safety and dignity”, he says.
While this is the case, Wilson points out to various instances of heinous attacks on health care workers as well as outrageous incidents where the bodies of health workers “martyred in the war against COVID-19” were treated with disrespect by persons obstructing their burial or cremation.
Examples cited in this regard include those from Madhya Pradesh, Bareilly, Bengaluru, Nellore, as well as the recent incident in Chennai, where a mob obstructed the burial of 55-year old neurosurgeon, Dr Simon Hercules who had died on Sunday from a COVID-19 infection. Following this incident, the Madras High Court had also taken suo motu note of the issue on Monday.
Wilson goes on to note that while the police have been making arrests when such incidents occur, "there exists no clear provision in the statute books to realise such offices during Epidemic periods."
Referring to how such offences are treated abroad, and given judicial rulings in cases such as Parmanand Katara v. Union of India and DMK v. State of Tamil Nadu, Wilson notes that the right to a decent burial has been judicially recognised as a fundamental right.
Therefore, he has asserted that “We must necessarily have a corresponding provision in the statute books to penalise those who prevent the exercise of the said right.” He goes on to highlight,
Therefore, he has proposed that the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 be suitably amended so that severe punishment of imprisonment up to 7 years is prescribed for those assaulting healthcare workers during the performance of their duties, or preventing the burial of the bodies of victims of epidemic diseases during the epidemic period.
Wilson points out that this amendment may be brought about by an ordinance, since the Parliament is not sitting amid the COVID-19 lockdown. He adds that these offences should be cognizable so that the police can immediately act against the perpetrators.
[Read the Letter]