Covid warriors get bigger legal shield
The government’s decision, following a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, came in the wake of assurances of safety given by home minister Amit Shah and health minister Harsh Vardhan to representatives of the Indian Medical Association (IMA).Updated: Apr 22, 2020 23:53 IST
In the backdrop of persistent attacks on health care workers in the front line of the battle against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, the Centre has approved an ordinance to make such attacks a cognisable and non-bailable offence, expedite investigation, imprison those convicted to up to seven years, and impose stringent penalties on vandalism and damage to property.
Underlining its importance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 manifests our commitment to protect each and every healthcare worker who is bravely battling COVID-19 on the frontline. It will ensure safety of our professionals.” He underlined that there could be “no compromise” on their safety. The medical fraternity has welcomed the ordinance.
The government’s decision, following a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, came in the wake of assurances of safety given by home minister Amit Shah and health minister Harsh Vardhan to representatives of the Indian Medical Association (IMA). The IMA subsequently cancelled protests scheduled on Wednesday and Thursday. Later in the day, the home ministry also sent an advisory to all state governments to ensure adequate security to all health care workers, and take strict action against any individual obstructing the functioning of health care workers, and the performance of the last rites of these workers.
The Cabinet’s decision to promulgate the ordinance — which will amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 — follows a spate of incidents in which doctors and paramedical workers, engaged in testing suspected Covid-19 cases for confirmation, or treating patients, were assaulted and their vehicles damaged by people who feared catching the infection or stigmatised and ostracised health care workers for their proximity to confirmed or suspected cases. The government, Opposition, and civil society have repeatedly called for honouring these professionals workers.
On Sunday, the burial of Samuel Hercules, a doctor in Chennai, was disrupted by violent protesters who damaged the ambulance carrying his body and injured its driver out of fear of the spread of the coronavirus. On April 8, two resident doctors of Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital were allegedly assaulted by a neighbour who accused them of “spreading” the disease. A week before that, two doctors and their team were pelted with stones during a drive to screen and identify possible Covid-19 patients in Madhya Pradesh’s Indore.
Addressing a press conference in Delhi, Union minister for information and broadcasting Prakash Javadekar said such offences have no place in a civilised society, adding that they will not be tolerated by the government. The Centre has, therefore, he said, decided to bring in an ordinance to amend the 1897 Act; this has, so far, served as the key legal umbrella for a range of government measures against the pandemic.
Once the President promulgates the ordinance officially, causing serious injury to health professionals and damage to property will invite imprisonment of up to seven years and a fine of up to ₹5 lakh. The offences will be probed in 30 days under the proposed amendment, and a decision will be given within a year. If the cars or clinics of doctors are damaged, double the cost will be recovered from the vandals, Javadekar said, pointing out that the government had also worked towards providing an insurance cover of up to ₹50 lakh for health workers on the front lines of the Covid-19 battle.
Both the Centre and the states can exercise the powers awarded by the ordinance. The scope of the amendment will cover health professionals ranging from doctors and paramedical staff to accredited social health activists.
Health care professionals welcomed the move. DS Rana, chairperson of the board of governors of Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, said it was the need of the hour as the instances of violence against health care workers, including doctors, were on the rise. “Not everyone was unruly but a section of people was misbehaving and it needed a regulation to rein it in as this section would not have listened to reason. There was no other way to check their irresponsible behaviour. Health care workers are putting their lives at risk in treating patients, and harassment and violence against them is the last thing they want in this crisis situation,” he said.
Other doctors said these provisions must not be temporary — but last beyond the pandemic.
Commenting on the decision, from the perspective of law enforcement, Yashovardhan Azad, a retired Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, said it was about time that the government intervened on behalf of the health workers to amend the “toothless” 1897 Act and display its strong intent. “However, to serve its purpose, special police officers should be appointed. This will help resolve the issue of scarcity of law enforcers for immediate response.”
The Centre’s response came in the wake of demands by the IMA for a stronger law; the umbrella medical body had also called for ‘White alert’ and ‘Black day’ protests on April 22 and 23. Home minister Shah and health minister Vardhan met representatives on Wednesday morning.
According to an official government statement, Shah allayed the concerns of the medical fraternity regarding their security, and assured them that the government would leave no stone unturned in ensuring their well being and security. He strongly condemned the recent attacks on health professionals and said Prime Minister Modi was closely following all issues and concerns of doctors. He also appealed to doctors to withdraw their planned protest -- a call heeded by the IMA.
On Wednesday evening, the home ministry sent out an advisory to stage governments and Union territories. It pointed out that at this time, even a single incident of violence against health care professionals was likely to create a sense of insecurity among the entire health care community. It underlined its own past advisories, as well as the Supreme Court directive to provide necessary police security to doctors and medical staff in hospitals and places where patients who have been diagnosed with Covid-19, or patients suspected of Covid-19, or those quarantined are housed; and to doctors and other medical staff who visit places to conduct screening of people. It urged states to act in line with the Supreme Court directives and provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and also consult local chapters of IMA.
The home ministry letter, sent by home secretary Ajay Bhalla to all state chief secretaries, also urged that governments impose strict penalties against those obstructing the functioning of health care workers, and against those offenders who obstruct the last rites of health care workers who may have died due to Covid-19 or any other reason. It also asked states and UTs to appoint a nodal officer both at the state and at the district level, on a 24*7 basis, to redress any safety issues of medical professionals.