Prejudice versus humanity
The Centre has significantly strengthened legal protection for frontline health workers in the light of the persistent attacks on them even as they battle the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). Amending the antiquated Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, the government has made attacks against health workers a non-bailable offence, expedited the duration of the investigation, instituted a prison sentence for the convicted up to seven years, and provided for fines ranging from Rs 2 to Rs 5 lakh. The ordinance will cover doctors, nurses, paramedical staff and accredited social health workers, who have faced increasing attacks on the grounds that their work makes them “carriers” of the virus. Housing societies have denied them accommodation; they have been physically attacked; and, in one particularly heart-rending case, mobs attacked the ambulance carrying the body of a doctor, who had died in the course of duty, to his burial site. The proposal to appoint nodal officers to register any concerns that health workers have regarding their safety is a welcome measure too.
Misinformation on social media, ignorance, prejudice and disregard for the law have contributed to the appalling stigma. To its credit, the government has consistently lauded the role of health workers and emphasised their indispensability in the fight against the virus. The prime minister himself has taken the lead with his public calls to honour health workers.
The government must now disseminate the provisions of the ordinance widely using all the tools at its disposal. Political parties should use their extensive cadres to inform constituents of the new measures. Much will depend on the efficacy of implementation, which has so often been a gap in enforcing the law. The government will need to ramp up security presence both in medical facilities and outside as they conduct screening operations. But at the end, this is not just a question of legal safeguards; it is a moral imperative that we respect and protect those who are saving lives at great risk to their own. This is a test of Indian society and its values; prejudice and irrationality should never be allowed to win over humanity and science.