To combat coronavirus, India invokes provisions of colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act: A look at what this means

As India grapples to prevent the novel coronavirus outbreak, the cabinet secretary on Wednesday announced that all states and Union Territories should invoke provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897.

FP Staff March 12, 2020 10:06:02 IST
To combat coronavirus, India invokes provisions of colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act: A look at what this means
  • As India grapples to prevent the novel coronavirus outbreak, the cabinet secretary on Wednesday announced that all states and Union Territories should invoke provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897

  • This colonial British-era law was meant to 'to provide for the better prevention of the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases'

  • Besides, the high-level Group of Ministers (GOM) said identification of additional quarantine facilities, development of isolation wards, training of health workers and doctors are also being undertaken

As India grapples with the novel coronavirus outbreak, the cabinet secretary on Wednesday announced that all states and Union Territories should invoke provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 by means of which all advisories issued by the Union health ministry and state governments from time to time are enforceable.

The number of coronavirus cases in the country crossed 60 on Wednesday, with the Union health ministry confirming at least 10 new cases amid new restrictions to control the spread of the virus.

The decision was taken at a meeting organised in Delhi by the cabinet secretary. It was attended by secretaries of departments concerned, representatives from the army, ITBP among others.

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"It was decided that all states/UTs should be advised by MoHFW to invoke provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 so that all advisories being issued from time to time by the Ministry of Health Welfare/State/UTs are enforceable," the ministry said in a statement.

The head of the World Health Organisation also officially characterised the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic on Wednesday. “This is the first pandemic caused by the coronavirus,” WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said during a news conference.

What is the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897?

This colonial-era law was meant to "to provide for the better prevention of the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases".  The Epidemic Diseases Act was introduced by the British to tackle the epidemic of bubonic plague that broke out in the then state of Bombay. It was passed in 1897. The then Governor-General of colonial India had conferred special powers upon the local authorities to implement the measures necessary for the control of epidemics.

To combat coronavirus India invokes provisions of colonialera Epidemic Diseases Act A look at what this means

Factory workers in Amritsar wear protective masks in the wake of novel coronavirus scare. PTI

The act is one of the shortest Acts in India, comprising just four sections.

The first section describes all the title and extent, the second part explains all the special powers given to the state government and centre to take special measures and regulations to contain the spread of disease. The second section has a special subsection 2A empowers the central government to take steps to prevent the spread of an epidemic, especially allowing the government to inspect any ship arriving or leaving any post and the power to detain any person intending to sail or arriving in the country.

According to the provisions of Section 2 of the Act, which describes the powers of the government, “When the state government is satisfied that the state or any part thereof is visited by or threatened with an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease; and if it thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law are insufficient for the purpose, then the state may take, or require or empower any person to take some measures and by public notice prescribe such temporary regulations to be observed by the public. The state government may prescribe regulations for the inspection of persons travelling by railway or otherwise, and the segregation, in hospital, temporary accommodation or otherwise, of persons suspected by the inspecting officer of being infected with any such disease”.

The third section describes the penalties for violating the regulations in accordance with Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 3 states, “Six months’ imprisonment or 1,000 rupees fine or both could be charged out to the person who disobeys this Act.”

The fourth and the last section deals with legal protection to implementing officers acting under the Act.

Although, the act does define or give a description of a “dangerous epidemic disease”.

The Indian Journal of Medical Ethics in a 2009 paper, described the Act as “one of the most draconian pieces of sanitary legislation ever adopted in colonial India”.

Group of Ministers meeting

Besides, the high-level Group of Ministers (GOM) constituted on the directions of the prime minister to review, monitor and evaluate the preparedness and measures taken regarding the management of COVID-19 also held its meeting on Wednesday. The meeting was held under the chairpersonship of Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan.

Minister of Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Minister of State for Home Nityananda Rai were also present in the meeting. A presentation of the status of COVID-19 was made to the GOM.

The action taken for prevention and management of COVID-19 in India were presented which included information about the various travel advisories issued in view of the evolving global situation regarding the disease, the ministry said in a statement.

As a measure of prevention, it is reiterated that passengers with travel history to China, Hong Kong, Republic of Korea, Japan, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, Iran, Malaysia, France, Spain and Germany should undergo self-imposed quarantine for a period of 14 days from the date of their arrival, and their employers should facilitate work-from-home for such employees during this period, the ministry said.

Health Secretary Preeti Sudan apprised the GoM that the states/UTs are advised to do rigorous IEC (Information, Education and Communication) and make people aware of the precautions, symptoms and helpline numbers.

The identification of additional quarantine facilities, development of isolation wards, training of health workers and doctors are also being undertaken, she said.

The official said universal screening is being done for travellers from 12 countries for all the flights from China, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Nepal, Indonesia, Iran and Italy at the earmarked aero-bridges.

The GoM undertook elaborate discussions on the various other precautionary measures and expressed their satisfaction with the actions taken, preparedness and efforts put together by various ministries, departments and states/UTs to combat novel coronavirus.

With inputs from PTI

 

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