The fight against COVID-19: Ten orders passed by Supreme Court in 2020

As the country slowly crawls back to normalcy, we take a look at the role the Supreme Court played in the fight against COVID-19 in 2020.
The fight against COVID-19: Ten orders passed by Supreme Court in 2020
10 Covid orders - 2020

With India reeling under the pandemic for the better part of 2020, the Central and state governments were forced into action in order to mitigate the fallout. Despite functioning at limited capacity, the Supreme Court of India monitored the progress made by the governments and authorities in this endeavour.

While the Court was lauded for taking initiative in some cases, it was criticised for failing to do so in others, prompting course correction in a couple of matters. In the migrant crisis issue particularly, the Court faced a barrage of criticism for accepting the submissions of the Centre at face value and taking belated action by which time the damage had already been done.

As the country slowly crawls back to normalcy, we take a look at the role the Supreme Court played in the fight against COVID-19.

Here are ten important orders passed by the Court in COVID-related matters.

Migrant labourer crisis

The top court came under intense scrutiny in March and April this year after it repeatedly shied away from taking cognizance of the plight of migrant workers returning from metro cities to their home towns due to the lockdown imposed by the Central government.

Large number of daily wage labourers along with their families set off on foot to their hometowns and villages thousands of kilometers away in an unprecedented exodus which was captured by media.

The Court declined to interfere on at least three occasions with some of the remarks made during the hearings coming across as glaringly insensitive.

When a plea for payment of minimum wages to migrant workers during the lockdown came up, Chief Justice of India, SA Bobde asked:

“If they are being provided meals why do they need money for meals?”

The Court was heavily criticsed for taking the Central government's version without a demur. Former judges of the Court wrote scathing articles and at least twenty lawyers from Bombay and Delhi wrote to the Chief Justice of India urging immediate intervention in the humanitarian crisis.

It eventually led to the registration of a suo motu case.

After the Court took suo motu cognizance the Court directed the Central and state governments to identify stranded migrant workers and transport them back to their native places within 15 days.

The crux of the order was :

  • Shramik trains as demanded need to be provided within 24 hrs

  • States need to establish help desks which will help migrant labourers to avail employment opportunities

  • Counselling centres need to be established to help transported migrant workers to again find a way back to travel and earn if they want to

  • If cases have been filed against the migrant workers for violating the lockdown under NDMA, then they must be considered to be withdrawn by states.

The orders came a little too late but letter than late than never.

10 Covid orders - 2020
[Breaking] Transport stranded migrants within 15 days, set up help desks for employment opportunities: Supreme Court directs Centre, states

Government-Public partnership to fight COVID-19

A three-judge Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, Subhash Reddy and MR Shah issued a slew of directions to combat the spread of the Coronavirus. The Bench called for a joint effort by the authorities and citizens to combat the pandemic and asked all States to act vigilantly and to work with the Centre harmoniously.

"Despite the Guidelines and SOPs issued, for lack of implementation the Pandemic has spread like wild fire. A strict and stern action should be taken against those who are violating the Guidelines and SOPs, whoever he may be and whatever position the violator is occupying," the order passed by the Court said.

Stating that the right to health is a fundamental right, the top court went on to add that "if one survives from COVID-19, many times financially and economically he is finished."

Therefore, either more provisions should be made in government hospitals or there should be cap on the fees charged by the private hospitals, which can be in exercise of the powers under the Disaster Management Act, the Court said.

In the same case, the Court also looked into the aspect of fire safety in hospitals after it took suo motu cognisance of the fire tragedies in COVID hospitals at Rajkot and Ahmedabad. The Court has now mandated the appointment of a nodal officer in each hospital to ensure fire safety audits are in place and no-objection certificates are obtained from authorities.

AYUSH doctors cannot prescribe COVID-19 treatment

A Bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan refused to interfere with the Kerala High Court order prohibiting AYUSH doctors from advertising or prescribing medicines as cures for COVID-19.

The High Court order prohibited the same, except for the purpose of boosting immunity, as per the Centre’s advisory issued on March 6, 2020. The High Court had recorded that practices such as Homeopathy, Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani, and Naturopathy can be used to enhance immunity to reduce the risk of COVID-19.

No COVID-19 posters to be affixed outside homes

The Supreme Court clarified that States and Union Territories are not required to paste posters outside the homes of quarantined COVID-19 patients.

No State or Union Territory is required to paste posters outside the residence of COVID-19 positive persons, as of now. The State Governments and Union Territories can resort the above exercise only when any direction is issued by the competent authority under the Disaster Management Act, 2005,” a three-judge Bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan said.

The order came in a petition stating that such posters amount to violation of the fundamental right to privacy of patients.

Notification exempting payment of overtime to factory workers quashed

The Bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra, and KM Joseph quashed a Gujarat government notification exempting factories from paying overtime wages to workers and providing ideal working conditions to them amid the COVID-19 lockdown. The Court ruled that the pandemic cannot be a reason to junk statutory provisions that ensure dignity and right to proper wages to workers.

The order was passed in a petition challenging the Gujarat government's decision to exempt factories from the provisions of the Factories Act relating to work hours, among other benefits.

The Court ruled that COVID-19 was not a "public emergency" which could have warranted such exemptions under Section 5 of the Factories Act.

Default accounts not to be declared as NPAs due to non-repayment of loans

In an interim order passed on September 3, a Supreme Court Bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan directed that accounts which were not declared as Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) till August 31, 2020 shall not be declared so till further orders.

The top court was hearing a clutch of petitions seeking extension of the loan moratorium period granted by the banks and waiver of the interest on interest charged during this period.

The Bench had recently reserved its judgment in the case, making it clear that the “no NPA” order would continue till the verdict is delivered.

No transfer of funds from PM Cares to NDRF

A Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R Subhash Reddy, and MR Shah refused to direct the transfer of money collected under the PM CARES Fund set up for COVID-19 relief to the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF). The Bench also held that contributions to the PM CARES Fund are voluntary, and that there was no statutory prohibition on contributions made to the NDRF.

Further, the Bench clarified that funds collected under the PM CARES Fund are entirely different from the NDRF, and were funds of a charitable trust.

"The funds collected in the PM CARES Fund are entirely different funds which are funds of a public charitable trust and there is no occasion for issuing any direction to transfer the said funds to the NDRF," the judgment said.

The petition filed by CPIL also raised the issue of drawing up a National Plan under the Disaster Management Act in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the top court held that the plan prepared by the Centre is sufficient to cater to the pandemic.

Directions in suo motu case on COVID-19 treatment

A Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MR Shah passed detailed directions regarding steps to be taken by State governments to ensure improvement in COVID-19 treatment at hospitals in a suo motu matter concerning the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) was directed to form an expert committee comprising senior doctors from Central government hospitals in Delhi, other GNCTD hospitals, All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and officers from the Ministry.

The committee was entrusted with the responsibility to inspect, supervise, and pass necessary orders to all hospitals, be it government hospitals, COVID specialty hospitals or others in NCT.

In the same matter, on June 12, the three-judge Bench had issued notice to the Centre and state governments of Delhi, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra in the suo motu case on the proper treatment of COVID-19 patients and disposal of bodies of persons who had succumbed to the virus.

Exams during COVID-19

After petitions were filed in the Supreme Court seeking cancellation of CBSE board exams for classes X and XII in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases across the country, a Bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar, Dinesh Maheshwari and Sanjiv Khanna was informed by CBSE that this year's Class X and XII Board exams stood cancelled.

The court also gave permission to the CBSE to notify the alternate assessment scheme prepared by it for evaluation of cancelled examinations.

The Court was, however, was also apprised that optional Class XII exams may be conducted when the situation improves. Students who opt out of taking these exams will be assessed on the basis of previous exams.

Taking a cue from the CBSE's stand, the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) also cancelled the exams.

Both the boards declared the board exam results taking into account past exams and internal assessment marks.

However, unlike CBSE, a Justice Arun Mishra led bench had dismissed a petition seeking the postponement of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) scheduled to be held amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The court while dismissing the plea observed "Life cannot be stopped. We have to move ahead with all safeguards and all... Are you (students) ready to waste one whole year?"

The top court later allowed the NEET aspirants who could not write the exam due to COVID-19 restrictions to take the exam on October 14.

Cap on COVID-19 testing fee

A Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and Ravindra S Bhat clarified that free COVID-19 testing would be available only for persons belonging to economically weaker sections of society (EWS) and those covered under the Ayushman Bharat scheme.

It modified an earlier order which had directed free COVID-19 testing by all government and private labs in the country.

The modification of that order effectively paved the way for private laboratories to charge Rs. 4,500 for testing those who do not fell under the EWS or Ayushman Bharat categories.

The Court also noted in the order that private labs can continue to charge the testing fee as fixed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) from patients "who can pay".

The order was passed in an application filed by Dr. Kaushant Kant Mishra, a Delhi-based orthopaedic surgeon. He had claimed that the Court's order directing private labs to test the novel Coronavirus at no cost will “disincentivize” them from functioning.

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