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The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 – its scope and applicability in today’s era with reference to COVID-19
Lakshay Parmar 20 Mar 2020

The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 – its scope and applicability in today’s era with reference to COVID-19

India is currently undergoing its epidemiological transition period. Our health care system is forced to tackle chronic non-communicable diseases while struggling to reduce the burden of communicable diseases. In India the burden and scope of infectious diseases is massive as they already contribute around 30 per cent of the disease burden currently prevailing in the nation. The epidemics of communicable diseases place a severe economic burden on individuals, families, societies and the nation at large. There is an immediate need for reviewing of the health systems which are operating in India.

 

Analysis of the health systems won't be complete without evaluating existing legal provisions. In India, the statute governing this particular area is the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 (hereinafter referred to as “the Act”). The Act is the only statute allowing for legal action in the case of a sub national outbreak.

 

 

Introduction of the Act and the need behind the same

 

As a response to the plague outbreak in Bombay, the Act came into force on 4 February 1897. This act confined the plague to Bombay through a series of tough steps that prohibited crowds from gathering together. The Act being one of the most concise acts, has four parts, the first section specifies the title and scope, the second section authorizes state and central government to take special steps and enforce regulations that are to be enforced by the public in order to prevent disease transmission. The third section specifies punishment for violating the laws, while the fourth section offers legal protection for individuals working under the act.

 

 

Criticism of the Act with respect to modern world

 

The Act is a 113-year-old, archaic statute. Over the years, the century-old Act has acquired quite a few shortcomings that can be traced to the shifting priorities of emergency services and public safety in the nation. The Act is silent on describing a serious infectious disease. As an act which was enacted almost a century ago, its geographical borders require an amendment. In addition to the measure of exclusion or quarantine, the act remains silent on the legal system for the provision and delivery of vaccines and medicines, and the enforcement of response acts. There is no clear reference to the ethical considerations or the values of human rights during an outbreak response.

 

The Act does not adhere to the current scientific understanding of prevention and response to outbreaks, but rather represents the medical and legal principles that existed at the time the Act was drafted. The country's political situation and the Centre-state relationships have changed. In the present situation, the Act as such is not adequate to deal with the prevention and control of communicable diseases.

Also, while the evaluating the Act, it can be further said that it is silent on the rights of the general public and only emphasizes on the powers of the government in taking the preventive steps. It does not take the interest of the public into account. People-centeredness is about taking into account the interests, beliefs, social conditions and lifestyles of people and working together to establish appropriate solutions.

 

The recent Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the best example to explain the incompleteness of the Act with respect to modern era. Though the Government has taken preventive measures to contain the disease, but it can be contended that those steps were taken reactively instead of pro-actively. Also, under the Act the operations of various public institutions like Gymnasiums, Spa’s, Cinema Halls, and night clubs have been suspended till 31st March 2020 in the National capital. Further, gathering of more than 50 people have been prohibited only except in the case of a marriage.

 

 

Conclusion

 

 We definitely need a concrete legal structure which is applicable to the current context. A strong framework for public health law develops not only the powers of Government but also forms the role of government in disease prevention and control. Therefore, it is well beyond doubt that this century-old Act requires a full revision to meet the shifting priorities of public health. Undeniably, it is difficult to rule out the role of public health experts in this regard. An integrated, extensive, actionable and specific legal framework is required for controlling outbreaks in India that should be expressed in a rights-based, public-focused and public health-oriented way.

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