Epidemic Disease Act: India battels coronavirus with British-era Act

Epidemic Disease Act, 1897

Author: Meenakshi Raj, Law Center 1, Faculty of Law, Delhi University.

What is Disease?

Associated with specific symptoms and signs, a disease is “an abnormal condition that affects a living organism in which a localized disease affects a specific part of the body, a disseminated disease spreads to other parts of the body and a systemic disease affects the entire body”.

Types of Diseases

A disease can broadly be of two types: –

• Communicable disease – A disease that is “contagious or infectious and transmits directly from one person to the other, through contact with bodily fluids,  blood or breathing in an airborne virus or through a bite by an insect is known as a communicable disease”. For example Flu, Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), etc.

• Non-Communicable/Chronic diseases – A non-communicable disease is a disease that cannot be transmitted directly from one person to another. It results due to “a combination of environmental, physiological, genetic and behavioral factors and tends to stay for a long duration”.

Subcategories of a disease.

Depending upon nature, a disease can be sub-categorized into three types. 

• Endemic disease – Dictionary defines the word Endemic as belonging to a certain region or population. “An endemic disease is a disease that is regularly found and is always present in a certain population or region”. E.g Malaria.

Epidemic disease – “A disease that spreads to a large amount of population within a short span of time is known as an epidemic disease”. E.g. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that happened in the years 2003.

• Pandemic disease – The word ‘Pandemic’ as defined in the dictionary means “something that is prevalent throughout the whole country or world”. Thus, a pandemic disease is a disease that spreads globally and causes serious illness worldwide. E.g. HIV, Spanish Influenza, etc.

Epidemic Disease

Epidemic diseases have severely damaged humanity throughout its existence. The disease spreads to a huge amount of population within a short span of time. More specifically, an epidemic arises due to: –

• A recent increase in the amount of harmfulness of the disease,

• A  recent introduction of the disease into a setting where it has not been before,

• An enhanced mode of transmission so that more susceptible persons are exposed,

• A change in the susceptibility of the person’s body’s response to the disease, and/or

• Factors that increase the body’s exposure or introduction through new portals of entry. 

What are the Epidemic Disease outbreaks?

The Epidemic disease outbreaks in three ways –

1) Propagated outbreak – In this type of outbreak, ‘the disease spreads from person to person as when an affected person leads to further exposure’.

2) Common source outbreak – Such an outbreak occurs when ‘the affected individual has any exposure to an infected person, who is the common agent to all infected individuals’.

3) Mixed outbreak – When an Epidemic disease shows characteristics of ‘both the above-mentioned outbreaks’, it is called a mixed outbreak. 

Epidemic Disease Act, 1897

“First enacted to tackle Bubonic plague that happened in Mumbai, the 123 years old Act, Epidemic Disease Act, 1897, is meant to provide special powers that are required for the implementation of measures needed to be taken for better prevention and control of the spread of the disease”.

‘Section 2’ of the Epidemic Disease Act gives the power to the Government to take ‘special measures and prescribe terms/regulations for a dangerous epidemic disease’.

• At any time, when the State Government is satisfied that the State or any part of the country is visited by, or threatened with an outbreak of a dangerous epidemic, it may, if it thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law are not sufficient for the purpose of controlling the disease, empower any person to take such measures and, by public notice, prescribe a temporary notice regarding regulations to be followed by the people or a class of persons which shall deem to be necessary to prevent the outbreak or spread of the disease, and may determine in what manner the expenses will be incurred and by whom (including compensation) shall be defrayed.

Section 2A states that if the Central Government is satisfied that India or any part thereof visited by or threatened by an outbreak of an epidemic disease, it may, if necessary, take measures and prescribe regulations for the inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port and for such detention thereof, or of any person intending to sail therein, or arriving thereby, as may be necessary.

• 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 (45 of 1860) and shall be penalized for the same.

The Indian Penal Code in Sec. 269 defines the ‘negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life’ which states that- whoever unlawfully or negligently does any act which is, and which he knows or has reasons to believe to be, likely to spread infection of any disease dangerous to life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term that may extend up to 6 months, or with fine, or with both.

Sec. 270 says that ‘malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life’ which states that – whoever malignantly does any act which is, and which he knows or has a reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend up to 2 years, or with fine, or with both.

• 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.

The Act has been used many times to contain various diseases in India like swine flu, cholera, malaria, and dengue. In the year 2018, the Act was enforced in Gujarat to fight against cholera. In 2015, in Chandigarh, the Act was used to deal with dengue and malaria. And in 2009 it was invoked in Pune to combat swine flu.  

Why is the Epidemic Disease Act in the news?

The Act, starting in March 2020,  is being enforced across India in order to limit the spread of coronavirus disease 2019. The biggest lockdown of its kind in human history is being observed by 30 States and UTs. While the WHO declares the disease as Pandemic, the States observe it as an Epidemic disease. Due to the number of infected cases increasing every day, the PM advises people to stay wherever they are.

With a full curfew imposed, the States are maintaining their own Regulations. “The government of Himachal Pradesh has announced The Himachal Pradesh Epidemic Disease (COVID-19) Regulations,2020. Similarly, the Delhi government has announced The Delhi Epidemic Disease (COVID-19) Regulations,2020 and the state of Maharashtra too following the other states, has announced The Maharashtra COVID-19 Regulations, 2020. Currently,  the State of Bihar goes under complete lockdown due to the Epidemic Disease Act being invoked by the State Government. A complete seal of any geographical area where any positive case is found is being followed by the Government”.  

What is Coronavirus (COVID-19)

First invented in Wuhan, China, 2019 Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19, is a new virus that has been identified. It has been named a novel as it has not been previously identified. At present, the exact source of the virus has not been identified but coronavirus is a large family of viruses, causing illness to the people and others that circulate among animals. It is believed that the infected patients in China had a linkage to the seafood and animal market, suggesting that the coronavirus has emerged from an animal source.

How does the coronavirus spread?

Since it is a novel (new) coronavirus, the modes of transmission of the virus are not clear. It is expected to have emerged from an animal but is now spreading from person to person, through respiratory route through symptoms like common cold, pneumonia, cough and can also affect the gut. The spreading of the disease is increasing more and more as currently there is no vaccine available to provide protection against the virus.

What are the measures taken by the Government of India so far for coronavirus?

As India battles through the blurred image of the confirmed cases against the epidemic disease, COVID-19,  the Government tries everything possible to save the people of its country. Unlike China and Italy, where the coronavirus hit like a storm, India still maintains its status in phrase 2. Helpline numbers that are available 24*7 to provide help to the citizens. A current lockdown of 21 days, including schools, restaurants, offices, railways, air travel, metro as declared by the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi is being followed by the people.

Various schemes, including the cutdown of taxes on essential commodities, are being observed by the State. Nearly, 4 lakh people are being fed in Delhi by Delhi’s Chief Minister, Mr. Arvind Kejriwal. 

With the increase of virus, the number of infected patients is bound to be increased. Various initiatives are being taken by several people and authorities to help India recover from this virus. Large amounts of donations are being made by people, train coaches are being converted into beds for the patients.

Side effects of COVID-19

Apart from the measures being taken for the betterment of the country, the virus is affecting the nation badly.

  • As many states face a lockdown, the economy suffers a huge loss.
  • The careers of several 12th standard students are on stake. 
  • Experts believe that, with a high population, poor health facilities, the risk of people being infected is very high.
  • Daily wage laborers, panicking,  are evacuating their workplace to go to their native places in an expectation to be safe there.

Conclusion

As said, health is a subject of the State Government and the Center cannot do much about it, it is high time that the Center should also be given powers so that it becomes a unified law. The Epidemic Disease Act runs on the old laws, it is high time to change it. Modal features are to be included and regular drill practices like Sweden contested in the year of 2017 should be practiced, so that people get a habit of staying in lockdowns. Lastly, as highly recommended by the 15th Finance Commission, N.K.Singh, the ‘Right to Health’ should be transferred to the concurrent list of the Constitution of India.

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