Epidemic Diseases Act 1897: An old colonial law will fight with bioterror COVID-19, Will it be able to?

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Overview

Public health and bioterror is really closely tied to the social, political and economic issues of the world. When they take paths together, the more bioterror emerges. The disease resulting from bioterror still contributes 30% in aggregate of the total diseases. The corona outbreak is a major threat to the public and consequently resulted in loss of wealth  and death of people which are irrecoverable for prolonged periods. The boundaries of the globe are shorter today than older times with excess of wealth and technology invoking the spread of this pandemic like a wildfire and with the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 putting petrol in it. The whole world is witnessing a rife pandemic and a reign of terror nowadays. This wildfire has resulted over loss of estimated $1.1 trillion worldwide and the death of countless people. To combat this grave pandemic authored by COVID-19 Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 has come into force again. This empowers Centre and State Governments with special power to bring out the country from sinking into the never-ending ocean of pandemic.

 

Backgrounds and Details of the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897

The old colonial act titled Epidemic Diseases Act was promulgated on February 4 1897 by the British imperial government to save Bombay presidency from bubonic plague widespread at that time which cost $600 million and lives of many people. This act prevented mass gathering of people and series of strict measures to ensure public health and dwindling statistics of pandemic. Alongwith concern for the public this act also walks with various controversies as it empowers the State to arrest people anytime and doesn't go hand in hand with human rights aspects. This act allowed Britishers to arrest Bal Gangadhar Tilak for 18 months. But then also it is only an act used today itself for emergency periods.

The aforesaid act has four sections describing meaning and scope. The section 1 describes the act name and its extent  in Indian territories.

Section 2 states the power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as to dangerous epidemic disease. At the point of time when the government is satisfied with the need for this law, the government can invoke this act and can take strict action by public notice to prevent the spread of pandemic. The government can segregate and inspect suspected places and people and travellers. The public were supposed to support the government. The government can put suspected people in quarantine and can formulate strict policies accordingly such as temporary and complete stay on railways and other transport community places and can inspect any ship, car or private vehicles on being suspect of infection.

Section 3 of the act states that any person disobeying any regulation or order made under this Act shall be deemed to have committed an offence punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. This section scope is extended on penalty that any person violating govt order has to pay penalty and such person can be arrested.

Section 4 of the act states that no suit or other legal proceeding shall lie against any person for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this Act. There is complete immunity to authority that while performing sovereign function under the banner of aforesaid act in good faith, no suit can proceed against him. The public can't suit officials acting on the official advice.

 

Subsidiary laws for Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 and Current scenario

Currently numerous laws are there in support of public health and Epidemic Act. The problem behind these is that they are not under a single banner which can effectively work together at the time of medical emergency and for normal course. The acts like Model Public Health Act, The National Health Bill 2009 which recognises health as a fundamental right of human beings under article 14,15 & 21 of the Constitution of India, further puts various obligations on govt & private institutions to provide well being of the people, amazingly no institutions can deny care under any circumstances including inability to pay cost by patient without any inequality, discrimination resist. Afterwards some sections of IPC serves to the public health but again the country is almost dependent on colonial act which contain numerous taint and loopholes. The act in itself is blur to the definition of menacing pandemics. It doesn't talk about what threats should be kept as an epidemic and not. Moreover, it is always dormant at major parts and invoked in peak times after when pandemic resulted in heavy losses already. Keeping aside quarantine and inspection act is silent about what measures should authority take such as creating medical structure & facilities for the public to dispose of the pandemic situation. Alongwith, The act doesn't go with human rights aspects & ethics as there is complete immunity to authorised person. The act done under the banner of the act by officials is completely immune from judicial proceedings if performed under good faith which is inhumane at sometime. The act needs a separate section detailing the activities of officials which are immune from judicial proceedings. These taints create vicious controversies for the act which need to be revamped.

 

No option other than Epidemic Diseases Act 1897

Although the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 has many flaws which needed to be revamp but in fact it is only the act which is serving us continuously from 123 years. The Epidemic Act, the faith and hard work of public & government has continuously saved the country from submerging into pandemic reign. There are other acts such as Integrated Disease Surveillance Project also working for public health with collecting pandemic data. At the point of corona outbreak how this act will perform is still unpredictable but predicting from past history of the act which majorly strictly prevents mass gathering it is clear that this act is still a weapon of the govt to hit the coronavirus and save the community.

 

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