New Delhi: With the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic overwhelming the health infrastructure across the country, several high courts have started issuing orders to propel swift action by state governments.
At least 10 high courts — in Gujarat, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, Madhya Pradesh, Bombay, Telangana, Patna, Karnataka and Allahabad — have issued a wide range of orders on the pandemic, so far. These include asking governments to ramp up oxygen and medicine supply, updating data on availability of beds, imposing near-lockdowns, directing adequate facilities for migrant labourers, ordering strict implementation of Covid-19 guidelines for elections and many others.
To this end, the high courts revived old petitions filed last year, took suo motu cognisance of the situation once again or heard new petitions on the surge of Covid cases.
Some of these orders spurred the state governments into action, as was done after directions by the Patna High Court and the Telangana High Court.
Others were not so successful.
The Allahabad High Court’s order imposing a near-lockdown in five cities in Uttar Pradesh Monday was stayed by the Supreme Court a day later, after the state government approached the top court.
Here is a look at the various orders issued by high courts in matters related to the Covid-19 pandemic, and their impact on the state governments.
‘Heading towards a health emergency’
Last year, the Gujarat High Court was the first to take suo motu cognisance of the preparations for the Covid-19 pandemic, even before the first case was detected in the state. On 11 April, the high court once again took suo motu cognisance of the “uncontrolled upsurge and serious management issues in Covid control”.
It cited media reports on shortage of beds, oxygen supply, testing facilities and medicines amid the pandemic and rising cases and deaths. The order was passed by a bench comprising Chief Justice Vikram Nath and Justice Bhargav D. Karia, who noted that the articles “indicate that the State is heading towards a health emergency of sorts”.
Since then, the court has heard the case three times, spanning several concerns, including increase of RT-PCR testing facilities across the state, real-time update of online portal on availability of vacant beds in hospitals, checking on the availability of oxygen.
On 15 April this year, the bench also took note of the general perception of state data on Covid-19 not being accurate and said “the State should not feel shy of publishing the correct data of RT-PCR testing results, if such figures are not being correctly reported”.
‘Shame govt didn’t plan in advance’
The Allahabad High Court Monday issued a sternly worded order, directing the Uttar Pradesh government to shut down all private and government-run establishments in five cities — Prayagraj, Lucknow, Varanasi, Kanpur Nagar and Gorakhpur — imposing a near-lockdown till 26 April. The order was passed on a suo motu PIL initiated by the court in May last year.
In the order, the high court also severely criticised the government and said: “If people die of pandemic in a large number due to paucity of sufficient medical aid it would be the governments to blame which failed to counter the pandemic even after one long year of experience and learning. One would only laugh at us that we have enough to spend on elections and very little to spend on public health.”
It added: “It is a shame that while the Government knew of the magnitude of the second wave it never planned things in advance.”
The matter was scheduled to be heard next on 26 April. However, the UP government approached the Supreme Court challenging the order a day later and the directions were stayed Tuesday.
‘Patients running helter-skelter’
The Patna High Court also took suo motu cognisance of the “alarming surge in Covid-19 cases in the State of Bihar…and the lack of facilities and healthcare system to meet the challenges arising out of the surge”.
The first order was passed on 15 April this year, taking note of news reports of patients “running helter-skelter” to find beds in government and private hospitals.
A day after this order, the Bihar government designated two more hospitals as dedicated Covid hospitals. Since then, the matter has been taken up two more times, with the court also hearing the director of AIIMS, Patna in a special hearing, which ran for more than three hours, Monday.
Meanwhile, the Hyderabad High Court Monday ordered the Telangana government to decide within two days on curfews or lockdowns in the state to contain rapidly rising Covid-19 cases across the state. Within hours, the Telangana government imposed a 10-day night curfew in the state from 20 to 30 April.
Covid-19 in prisons and remdesivir supply
Last week, the Bombay High Court took suo motu cognisance of the surge in Covid-19 cases in various prisons across Maharashtra based on newspaper reports. When the matter was heard again Tuesday, the court was given details of the prisoners and suggested steps that will be taken by the government to arrest the surge. The matter will be heard again on 22 April.
The Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court also ordered the Maharashtra government Monday to immediately release 10,000 vials of the antiviral drug remdesivir by Monday night to the Nagpur district.
The bench asserted that the distribution of remdesivir injections has to be on the basis of need and asked the Centre and the Maharashtra government about the parameters being followed while allocating the drug to different states and districts. The governments are to file their affidavits on this by 21 April.
‘Healthcare infra at a stage of imminent collapse’
The Delhi High Court Monday revived a disposed-of petition filed by advocate Rakesh Malhotra related to Covid-19 testings and infrastructure, noting that the virus has raised its “ugly head” once again. The court said the pandemic is raging with much greater intensity and “it is evident that the healthcare infrastructure is at the stage of imminent collapse”.
The high court especially took note of the plight of daily wagers and migrant labourers, saying the “State failed to do enough” during the migrant crisis last year. Therefore, it directed the government to utilise the money available with the board constituted under the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1996 to provide food, medicines and other necessities to construction workers.
On Tuesday, the court said it will monitor the petition on a day-to-day basis.
The court also directed the central and Delhi governments to inform the bench about the availability of beds — with or without ventilators and with or without oxygen — as well as the availability of oxygen.
On the same day, the Madras High Court directed the Tamil Nadu government to prioritise Covid-19 vaccination and open special counters in all government centres for the disabled, irrespective of whether they attained the age of 45 years.
The order was passed on a PIL filed by Meenakshi Balasubramanian, disability rights activist and co-founder of Chennai-based Equals Centre for Promotion of Social Justice.
Additionally, the Madhya Pradesh High Court also issued 19 directives to the state government, on a suo motu writ petition initiated by it on Covid-19 last year.
The high court Monday emphasised the right to good health under the Constitution and issued directions covering various aspects, including oxygen and remdesivir supply, rates charged by private hospitals and pathological labs, updation of data on availability of beds and increasing the number of RT-PCR tests.
‘Callous, irresponsible and nonchalant attitude’
In poll-bound West Bengal, the Calcutta High Court heard two petitions expressing concerns over people participating in election campaigns without adhering to Covid-19 protocols in the state.
“Callous, irresponsible and nonchalant attitude or behavior of some of the members of the society cannot be permitted to endanger the lives of the other members of the society,” the court observed on 13 April.
It also directed the district magistrates and chief election officer of the state to ensure that Covid-19 guidelines for conducting elections are implemented strictly.
Meanwhile, the Karnataka High Court Saturday told the state government to issue directions to all those concerned to avoid congregation or rallies after the bypoll results are declared on 2 May.
(Edited by Rachel John)