Written by - Rupaswini, Meghana and Mythri
In the recent past, India has undergone many major outbreaks of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Some of the widespread chaos was caused by the outbreak of a cholera epidemic due to the O139 strain in 1992, the plague in Surat in 1994, the large-scale spread of chikungunya and dengue fever, and avian influenza (H5N1) and pandemic H1N1 influenza. In the last decade, the resurgence of diphtheria and outbreaks caused by the Nipah, Chandipura and Japanese encephalitis viruses and haemorrhagic fever from Crimea-Congo have also posed a threat to the public health of the world. The emergence of drug-resistant tuberculosis and malaria and the resistant species of New Delhi Metallo-beta-lactamase (NDM-1) is also a matter of concern for the country. As in any other world, diseases with international spread potential, such as Ebola virus disease and Zika virus, are also threats to India's public health security.
Powers of state government
When a state government is satisfied at any time that an outbreak of a dangerous infectious disease is visited by or threatened by the state or any of its sections, it may take or empower any person to take measures to prevent the outbreak or spread of the disease; it may take such measures if it considers the ordinary provisions of the law in force to be inadequate. For this reason, the state government can prescribe temporary regulations for the public, a person or a class of individuals. It can specify the manner in which any costs incurred (including compensation, if any) are to be covered and by whom.
Powers of central government
If the central government is convinced that an outbreak of any dangerous infectious disease is visited or threatened by India or any of its parts, and that the ordinary provisions of the current law are inadequate to prevent the outbreak or spread of such a disease, the central government can then take steps to inspect any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port in India. It may prescribe regulations for the detention of any person intending to sail in or arrive by a ship or vessel as may be necessary.
Penalty: Any person who disobeys any regulation or order made under this Act shall be deemed to have committed an offense punishable by section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.
CURRENT OVERVIEW ON EPIDEMIC DISEASES ACT 1897
Under the provisions of the Epidemic Act, several states and union territories, including Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat, Assam, Delhi, have released notifications. The States are grappling with the isolation of people and stopping the spread of the disease even after enforcing certain restrictions under this Act, as there are no clear provisions in the Act that can direct the State Governments to act in a specified manner at the time of crisis during the spread of the epidemic. The Act, when organizations such as World Health Organisation and the United Nations were not even founded, is more than a century old. In enforcing the instructions provided by these organisation time and again the Act lags behind. There are many laws on public health passed by the Parliament in India that are not covered under a single enactment or law. To be ready for some sort of disease, it is the need of the hour for the legislature to amend the century-old statute. The 2009 National Health Bill is now pending for implementation. The National Health Bill, which would have a very beneficial impact, if adopted, to take effective steps during the duration of the epidemic. With today's COVID-19 crisis, our legislature should consider and recognize the problems the government faces today and pass a new and efficient law accordingly.
EPIDEMIC DISEASES BILL (AMENDMENT)2020
The Amendment Bill essentially introduces provisions that criminalise and punish any attack on healthcare professionals or their property. It defines a healthcare service professional as a person who comes into contact with infected individuals during the course of performing their duties to curb the epidemic and therefore, are at risk of contracting the disease
It specifically identifies
1. public and clinical healthcare providers such as doctors
2. any person empowered under the Act to take measures to prevent the outbreak of the
3. other persons designated as such by the state government.
The Amendment Bill also inserts section 3B under which it prohibits acts of violence against healthcare personnel or causing any damage to the property of healthcare personnel in which they have a direct interest. A violation of these prohibitions would attract a penalty of Rs. 50,000-Rs. 2,00,000 or a jail term of six months to seven years. The government introduced this Amendment Bill in response to various incidents of attacks on healthcare personnel involved in testing and treating COVID-19 patients.
EPIDEMICS ACT: FROM A RIGHTS PERSPECTIVE
While the Act emphasizes the powers of the government, its deafening silence on the roles and duties of the government and people's rights makes it highly vulnerable to misuse. The Act presents an opportunity to dilute an individual's dignity, autonomy and privacy without specifically defined circumstances, while failing to take the principles of human rights into account. In agreement with the interests of the public, such as basic needs, values, rights, preferences and lifestyle, an Act should be considered to an exceptional degree. The latest cases of mass relocation of jobs indicate that the Act fails to protect the most marginalized sections of society in troubling times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Since basic necessities like food and money were missing, daily wage earners were forced to leave on foot for their hometowns. The law does not mention the rights or accountability of the government to them, making a vulnerable segment that accounts for one-third of the 80% of Indians employed in the informal sector prone to further violence without accountability to anyone. 16 migrant workers were run over by trains after walking for 45 km in an attempt to reach home. Many have lost their lives along the way, their universal human rights falling short of the law's incompetence.
This colonial-era Act comes with more vices than virtues in this era of different priorities and requirements. It fails to take the contemporary scientific advancements and challenges into its stride while also not paying heed to various issues like human rights, public interest and government’s duties towards its citizens. This COVID-19 pandemic provides a rare opportunity to lessen the legislative and policy gap in India’s public health system. Lessons can be learned from global best practices. In Canada, most crises are steered down at provincial levels itself in coordination with Centre because the provincial levels have greater power to impose regulations and impose penalties thus increasing the efficiency at lower levels. While Australia has very sophisticated legislation clearly defining procedures and punishments, it also has various coordination committees for effective control of the situation. On the other hand, England is not only sticking to existing laws to contain the virus outbreak but it is also updating these laws according to the current challenges. Even in the USA, the legislation was last updated in December 2019.
This act needs a complete overhaul structurally, by learning from public health laws across the world and rehabilitating solutions to contemporary problems so that it can be modified into a self-sufficient and holistic law. On such legislation proposed was the National Health Bill of 2009, but it is still undergoing evolution and its fate is unforeseeable.
 The Global Burden of Disease: 2004 Update, ‘WHO’ https://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/2004_report_update/en/, (accessed 20 Dec 2020).  T Dikit, ‘Emerging and Re-Emerging infections in India: An Overview’ Indian Journal of Medical Research, Vol 138, No 1, 2013, https://www.ijmr.org.in/article.asp?issn=0971-5916;year=2013;volume=138;issue=1;spage=19;epage=31;aulast=Dikid, (accessed 20 Dec 2020).  Plague Regulation 1900.  P. S. Rakesh, ‘The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897: Public Health Relevance in the current scenario’, Ijme, Vol 1 No 3, 2016, https://ijme.in/articles/the-epidemic-diseases-act-of-1897-public-health-relevance-in-the-current-scenario/?galley=html, (accessed 26 December 2020).  P. S. Rakesh, ‘The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897: Public Health Relevance in the current scenario’, Ijme, Vol 1 No 3, 2016, https://ijme.in/articles/the-epidemic-diseases-act-of-1897-public-health-relevance-in-the-current-scenario/?galley=html