By NIPUN SAXENA :
With 548 districts in 30 States/Union Territories are under complete lockdown, every effort is being pressed into service to ensure that appropriate measures are brought in place so that India does not find itself in the middle of the third phase where the infections would double up on a daily basis causing an unprecedented pressure on our healthcare.
THE word “novel” in the Novel Coronavirus is a misnomer. As part of human nature, there is a propensity to compare the deadliest of diseases and while Covid-19 does not appear to have a high mortality rate, yet the rate of exposure seems to be unprecedented. Historically speaking, there is one disease which could match up to the exposure rate which Covid-19 is suspected to have; the disease which annihilated nearly 40 to 60% of Eurasia’s total population in the 14th century. Plague, also known as the Black Death. Some of the features that Covid-19 and Plague share are baffling. Both the diseases, Plague and Covid-19 has been originated in Central Asia. Like Covid-19, Plague also spread through surface contact and was singularly instrumental to have caused widespread deaths in two continents. We must, therefore, learn our lessons from the past and apply them to the present situation.
Of course, the carriers, the type of organism and the symptoms are widely different, but the exposure rates are very similar. The Covid-19 pandemic is still in its second phase but is slowly but surely moving towards the third phase which is “community transmission” which is characterised with an exponential rate of increase in the last two days, which is typical of its nature, given the experience in China, Italy, Spain, United States of America, Netherlands and the United Kingdom which have shown similar patterns. This exponential increase is characteristic of this virus primarily because the Rate of Exposure at this stage thrives on what is popularly termed as the precursor to “community transmission”.
While the efforts of the Government of India are laudable, from the Prime Minister giving a call for self-quarantine or “Janata Curfew” which was followed in letter and spirit by the public to widening the capacity to carry out tests per week ratio at par with South Korea, a commitment to increase the capacity to about 70,000 tests per day and by requesting the NABL approved private labs to carry out extensive testing, to requisitioning more number of ventilators (1,200 additional ventilator support), yet the sheer density of population in our country makes it a colossal task.
With 548 districts in 30 States/Union Territories are under complete lockdown, every effort is being pressed into service to ensure that appropriate measures are brought in place so that India does not find itself in the middle of the third phase where the infections would double up on a daily basis causing an unprecedented pressure on our healthcare. This is when the Corona Virus will be infecting the community at large, and therefore the only plausible solution is a complete shutdown of all the services, save and except essential services.
The way Indian legal system is designed, there are three challenges that need to be addressed effectively and timely, for time is of utmost essence. In India, “Public health and sanitation; hospitals and dispensaries” features in the State List. Which is to say, that the power to make and implement laws with respect to matters falling within State List shall be the absolute and unfettered prerogative of the State Government. The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and particularly Section 2 of this Enactment specifically authorises only the State Government to make regulations to carry out prevention, testing or control of a dangerous epidemic disease.
The power granted to the Central Government under Section 3 is very limited in its import and therefore it is the ultimate discretion of the State Government to take a step by framing appropriate regulation in this behalf. Now, even as on date, not every State has framed regulations to contain the Covid-19, and those that have made these regulations have spent considerable and valuable time in mulling the pros and cons of the same, before notifying the regulations. In contradistinction, in the United States of America, the Federal Drug Agency (FDA) has been empowered under The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorisation Act of 2013 (PAHPRA) to function as the Federal body to not only conduct a test or prescribe measures for isolation but to also take urgent remedial steps such as to even administer (with the full consent of the patient) those drugs that are currently under testing. The scope of this legislation covers all public health emergencies involving chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents, as well as emerging infectious disease threats.
Thus, in one stroke the entire machinery is mobilised to carry out effective preventive steps, and this machinery is governed by a Federal Agency, namely the FDA which functions under a special Emergency Use Authorisation programme as part of the detailed National Health Strategy. Whereas, India continues to maintain the distinction between State and Central powers, on account of the constitutional limitations imposed, which results in delayed functioning and delayed response time to public health emergencies. This is further accentuated by the fact that different States have different budgetary allocation resulting in different levels of expertise, a stark contrast in the infrastructure, and provisions for supplies resulting in overcrowding of hospitals, infrastructural deficits and the like. Although India does have important provisions which will ensure mandatory quarantine and could be used against those patients who have attempted to flee the mandatory quarantine.
Appropriate provisions have been laid down under Chapter XIV of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which deal with offences endangering Public Health and carry punishment under Section 269 and 270 of the IPC, 1860, in addition to the miscellaneous power for enforcing compliance and punishing non-compliance under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. But most of these provisions are aimed at enforcing the regulations and steps framed by the Government, i.e. they are corrective and not preventive. It has been widely argued amongst various medical practitioners that the initial reports of the spread of the virus are usually far from the truth, and the real statistics appear to emerge within a period of 4 to 6 weeks in cases of rapidly spreading pandemics such as the present virus. (IPA) (Courtesy: The Leaflet)