Why India must include prisoners in its immunisation drive
Prisoners are guaranteed the right to basic health needs. As India undertakes its biggest immunisation drive, it must overcome the hurdles that exist within the system and ensure that the incarcerated are not left out
“Every single Indian who needs to be vaccinated will be vaccinated”. This is the rallying cry of the Covid-19 Immunisation Protocol for India. Yet, as the country undertakes its biggest immunisation drive, a question arises: Will this include people in custody?
People in custody, whether accused or convicted, must be considered a priority for the immunisation drive. The Sustainable Development Goals call to “leave no one behind” has helped push boundaries and promote inclusiveness. With vaccinations now available, we need to ensure that those in custody also have access to the cure.
In early December, the Government of India released India’s Covid-19 statistics and defined its path to immunisation. The Centre’s strategy is hinged on the maximisation of technology and is heavily reliant on citizens to upload accurate health data.
In light of these developments, it is vital to underscore that persons in confinement continue to be disproportionately affected by the direct and indirect impact of Covid-19. Therefore, the strategy for implementation needs to be resolved through equitable allocation.
In 1997, the Supreme Court in Rama Murthy v State of Karnataka upheld the protection of the health of prisoners. In Parmanand Katara v Union of India and Ors., the apex court ruled that the state has an obligation to preserve life, whether he is an innocent or a criminal liable to punishment under the law. The Constitution may not guarantee the fundamental right to health, but it is subsumed under the right to life. The Nelson Mandela Rules, 2015, frame international basic standards vis-à-vis the minimum treatment to prisoners, including medical and health standards. The Model Prison Manual also upholds every prisoner’s right to basic health needs. However, with just one medical staff for 243 inmates and high staff vacancy, concerns about testing, isolation and, now, enrolling and administering the vaccine are well-founded.
The National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 (NEGVAC) was constituted on August 7, 2020, to strategise for the inoculation drive. The Co-WIN (Covid Vaccine Intelligence Work) application was developed to track vaccines, their administration and the e-recording of the inoculated.
India currently accounts for close to 10% of the global total of cases, less than 1% of all active cases and 6.2% of all deaths. Last March, the Supreme Court noted that since Indian prisons were overcrowded, they could be a breeding ground for the spread of Covid-19 and, therefore, pose a threat to inmates and prison staff. Cognisant of a potential disaster, the court directed immediate steps for the release of some prisoners to ease pressure on the system. To this end, the prison population fell by a significant 10.42% by end of June, 2020. Yet, 27% of the prisons in 19 States/Union Territories continued to be overcrowded. As many as 18,157 prisoners and staff contracted the virus and 17 succumbed. This is why it is deeply concerning that prisoners are being excluded from the first phase of vaccination because they happen to be incarcerated. There is potential for further spread, since steps are now underway to recall prisoners who were earlier released due to the pandemic.
The problem doesn’t end there. Co-WIN relies on access to technology ie, mobile phones for people to upload details of their comorbidities. And when it comes to people in custody, reliability for uploading accurate data rests on sticky grounds.
The committee formulating the strategy needs to understand the bottlenecks which may arise for those in custody. Specific implementation plans, which acknowledge these concerns, must be rolled out. This includes checking logistical barriers, information roll-out and the final steps towards vaccination. This will be the true test of the commitment to promote inclusion and fairness.
Amrita Paul is senior programme officer with the Prison Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
The views expressed are personal