COVID-19: Going by the law!

Two laws are now applicable in the current pandemic, and there are certain duties, responsibilities and precautions that must be ensured by doctors, hospitals and patients.

On March 11, 2020, the Union Cabinet Secretary announced that all the States and Union Territories should invoke Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. Nearly all the States and Union Territories followed this directive. And, this gave legal backing, a statutory support to the directions issued by the Union Health Ministry, the State governments and the local authorities to contain the corona pandemic. The disease had already been declared as a notifiable one.

Two laws are now therefore applicable to everyone – doctors, hospitals, patients and general public, namely, The Epidemics Diseases Act, 1897 and The Indian Penal Code, 1860. Mahendrakumar Bajpai, Advocate, Supreme Court of India; Editor, Medical Law Cases – For Doctors; and Honorable Director, Institute of Medicine & Law, says, “Coincidentally, both these laws are more than 100-years-old and are penal in nature, that is, they give rise to criminal liability and hence imprisonment is one of the consequences of not following them.”

Bajpai further informs, the first law, The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 was enacted “for the better prevention of the spread of Dangerous Epidemic Disease”. It is a short Act having only 4 sections.

Section 2 of the Epidemic Act empowers the state government to take suitable temporary measures to prevent an outbreak or threatened outbreak or spread of an epidemic. Once this Act is invoked, the state government can give directions and take required steps to arrest spread or outbreak of an epidemic disease.

Section 4 gives legal protection to every person who has acted under this Act or the directions issued under this Act subject to only one condition that the act must have been done in good faith.

Section 3 of the Epidemic Act prescribes the punishment for disobeying the orders of the State government given under this Act. The penalty prescribed takes us to the second law which is applicable in an epidemic, The Indian Penal Code, 1860, specifically Section 188.

Section 188 of the Penal Code prescribes punishment of up to six months and fine of up to Rs 1,000 for not following government orders.

There are two more provisions of the Indian Penal Code that can be attracted in the current scenario for spreading an infectious disease either knowingly (Section 270) or unknowingly or negligently (Section 269). The former attracts imprisonment of two years which is far more than the six months under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, which is attracted under the Epidemic Act.

Bajpai lists duties, responsibilities and precautions for doctors, hospitals and patients…

Doctors and hospitals:
• Doctors must keep themselves fully informed about the directions that are coming from the state and local authorities. These must be followed religiously.
• Any suspected patient must be managed appropriately according to the expertise, qualification and expertise as well as the facilities available with the doctor and hospital.
• Ensure that patients who have been referred to the other facility report to the other facility.
• Report to the authorities about any patient who refuses to follow medical advice or acts dangerously.
• Do not fear law. It protects you. Every action that you have taken in good faith irrespective of the consequences is immune from legal action under section 4 of the Epidemics Act.
• ‘Take care of yourself’. Self-preservation is a supreme law.
• Hospitals must ensure personal safety of its staff. This is not only a legal obligation but also an ethical and moral one.

Professional bodies, associations of doctors and hospitals
• For an individual doctor, it would be a herculean task to be vigilant about the various directives coming from the authorities. Failure to follow these directions could result in adverse legal consequences. Hence the need for the associations to be active.
• A copy of the directives, regulations and guidelines issued by statutory authorities is usually marked to the relevant professional bodies and associations, especially the ones at the national level. The national bodies must ensure that the relevant information is passed to their State or District Chapters. Emails, SMS’s, WhatsApp and such other medium can be used to reach member doctors directly.
• In case the relevant information is not shared by the authorities, then a letter or email must be addressed requesting them to send the relevant information.
• At times, the doctors of a specialty may be facing some problems, or the directions given by the authorities may be unclear or confusing or may not be capable of execution. In all such cases, the authorities must be contacted for suitable clarification or further directions.
• A small committee can be constituted for this specific purpose to co-ordinate and take appropriate decisions.

• Everyone has to follow the directions given by the authorities.
• Persons who have been advised isolation or quarantine and have not followed the same are liable to be prosecuted. There are reports that a few persons have ran away from hospitals or have been travelling when they have been advised isolation. One must remember that the legal action for these misdemeanours can be initiated even after months and the result could be imprisonment of two years.

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