Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan with MoS Health Ashwini Choubey in a press conference on novel coronavirus, in New Delhi | PTI
Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan with MoS Health Ashwini Choubey in a press conference on novel coronavirus, in New Delhi | PTI
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The spread of COVID-19, or the new coronavirus, has kindled a rare, perhaps unprecedented, scare at a global scale resulting in close to 4,300 deaths worldwide. In India, at least 73 people have been affected by COVID-19 so far. The novel coronavirus has challenged public healthcare systems’ capacities to the hilt and the World Health Organization declared it as a pandemic on Wednesday.

Simultaneously, in India, a high level group of ministers reviewed the current status and actions being taken to curb the spread of the virus. They declared that “all states and UTs should  invoke provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which makes advisories issued by the Ministry of Health Welfare/State/UTs legally enforceable”. Additionally, provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, were invoked to treat this like a disaster.

It is important to unpack these current legal developments and understand the full scope of state action to combat the novel coronavirus.

Also read: India can fight COVID-19, but only if the private sector is allowed to step in quickly

Understanding the combined Use of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and the Disaster Management Act, 2005

The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, is the nodal legislation with respect to containment of ‘Dangerous Epidemic Diseases’.

It allows the State Governments and the Central Government to adopt any measures to prevent the outbreak of a dangerous disease once confirmed as an epidemic.

Section 2A of the Act allows the Central Government to take any measures and prescribe regulations for the inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port, or to detain any person arriving or leaving on such a vessel.

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Violations of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, invite penalty under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.

However, even as the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, gives the Central and State Governments overarching powers, it lacks provisions enabling them to speedily set up management systems required for a coordinated and concerted response. It has also been criticized for being archaic and not up to speed for contemporary health challenges.

Given this, the government has invoked the Disaster Management Act, 2005, since it provides for an exhaustive administrative set up for disaster preparedness. Accordingly, on March 11,  the Union Home Secretary, who is the chairperson of the National Executive Committee under the Act delegated his powers to the Secretary, Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Also read:This is Modi govt’s to-do list for ministries to tackle coronavirus crisis efficiently

While the combined use of the two Acts is innovative, a more comprehensive way to deal with such situations in the future would be to revisit and strengthen the Epidemic Diseases Act. For instance, an important revision could be to introduce standards through which ‘Dangerous Epidemic Diseases’ are defined regularly. Such standardisation would expedite the identification a global pandemic such as COVID-19 domestically. It would allow for a more timely response, especially given that it was only on Wednesday that the Indian government identified it as a dangerous epidemic disease, taking multiple steps.

This article was originally published on Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy’s blog.

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