With more than 800 cases, the Indian Government has recently taken the strict measure to Lockdown the whole country for 21 days to deal with the epidemic, COVID-19, and has set-up quarantine facilities. Both the Centre and State governments are empowered to regulate health-related matters, and they are trying to do their best to contain the disease.

One of the significant legislative frameworks at the central level for prevention and spread of dangerous epidemic diseases is The Epidemic Diseases Act, which empowers it to take necessary measures to deal with dangerous epidemic diseases at ports of entry and exit. The Act also allows the states to take extraordinary steps or promulgate regulations to deal with epidemics within their state jurisdictions.

The Union Home Secretary to which Powers has been executed has delegated its powers to the health ministry for enhancing the preparations against this outbreak. If the State government is satisfied that any part of its territory is threatened with an outbreak of dangerous disease, it is provided with the power to adopt or authorize all measures, including quarantine, to prevent the outbreak of the condition under the above Act.

Similarly, If the Central Government is satisfied that there is an imminent threat of outbreak of an epidemic disease and that the provisions of the law at that time are insufficient to prevent such an outbreak, it has the power to take measures and prescribe regulations allowing for the inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port and for the detention of any person entering or intending to sail. Disobeying any regulation made under such power attracts the offense under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.

In this provision, the intention of the person is of no material use, and only the fact that he knew of the order and disobeyed it, which produced harm is sufficient to charge him. Such a person can be provided only with the Summary trial, on the discretion of trial magistrate, and the only defense remains with him is of good faith.

Under Section 270 of the Indian Penal Code, whoever malignantly commits any act which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

So far, the case of Kanika Kapoor has become famous, where she allegedly misguided the health officer while testing and committed the Act mentioned in the above provision for which a complaint has been filed against her. For the process of testing, central Government appoints a health officer who may inspect the aircraft, its passengers, and its crew, and subject them to medical examinations after their arrival.

The officer may prohibit the embarkation of any person showing symptoms of any quarantinable disease and any person to whom the disease might have been transmitted. Regulations require that airline staff report any suspected cases or passengers who, in their opinion, from observations made in-flight, may be suffering from symptoms of a quarantinable disease.

Though, quarantine affects the fundamental right “to move freely throughout the territory of India,” It is protected under the exception of reasonable restrictions that the state may impose in the interest of public health.

Tracking them down

In the time of the coronavirus, panicky people have tried to escape quarantine and invited legal action

  • An 18-year-old Kolkata patient of COVID-19, the son of a top bureaucrat in West Bengal, has reportedly flouted norms on returning from the UK. He was advised by airport authorities to get admitted to Beliaghata ID Hospital on March 15. He allegedly defied the authorities and went on with his social life and met many people. Finally, on March 17, the state health department forced him to get admitted, following which he tested positive.
  • A Briton, part of a travel group, was among 20 passengers who were offloaded from a Dubai-bound Emirates flight at Kochi airport. He was under quarantine at a Kerala resort but left it and reached Kochi. Authorities stopped the plane and deplaned him. Meanwhile, the resort was closed even as the staff there expressed displeasure that they were not advised properly. Authorities were thinking of taking legal action against the Briton for violating the Public Health Act, the travel agent who coordinated the tour programme and the manager of the resort.
  • A woman and her husband, a Google employee, returned to Bengaluru after a honeymoon in Italy. While the husband, who tested positive, was placed under quarantine, she took a flight to Delhi and then a train to Agra and hid in her parental home. It was only after the police were called in that she was taken to an isolation ward. As she and her father had misled authorities, they have been booked by the police under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897.
  • A man under observation in the isolation ward of a district hospital in Pathanamthitta, Kerala, fled but was tracked and brought back within hours.
  • A couple from the US who had symptoms linked to the coronavirus was traced to Kochi international airport and put under isolation after they fled Alappuzha Medical College.

States are also provided with wide-ranging powers under the Act, which they may delegate to deputy commissioners in the case of emergency. States are empowered to prescribe regulations for inspection and vaccination of people travelling by any means. Further, they can, by a general or specific order, direct the Deputy Commission to exercise power under Section 2 of the 1897 Act.

In an article, President of Confederation of Medical Associations of Asia and Oceania, and Heart Care Foundation of India and a former national President, IMA stated about section 2 as:

“Many of these powers are prescribed in municipal corporation acts governing “major municipal areas,” or public health acts that also provide municipal-level commissioners or collectors with quarantine or other powers. These can be concerning the removal of a person to separate premises for medical treatment, cleansing or disinfecting any building or part of any building or any articles, taking extraordinary measures in case of the outbreak of dangerous or epidemic diseases.

The ambit of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act is wide enough to allow a state or a lower functionary in the administration, in dealing with an emergency caused by the outbreak of a dangerous disease, to seek or require the cooperation of the public or corporate bodies in the public or private sectors. If the desired cooperation is not forthcoming, a regulation may be imposed. Failure to obey or comply with restrictions imposed by such a regulation constitutes a punishable violation. Violations of quarantine laws (see box) have been reported from some places in India, but it does not appear as if anyone has been punished.”

Thus, the Government has been provided with the power to put the suspected cases in quarantine, and on violation of such order, the punishment can be provided under the Indian Penal Code. The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 lays down punishment as per Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, for violating such orders. As per Section 3 of the Act, any person who violates the regulations, will attract penalties or order made under the Act that is simple imprisonment for 6 months or fine of Rs 1000 or both.

However, you’ll be amazed to know that other countries are no less strict when it comes to dealing with such situations.

In Italy, anyone who refuses to self-isolate risks being charged with causing injury and being jailed for six months to three years apart from being slapped with a fine. And if a “careless” coronavirus sufferer goes on to pass the bug to an elderly person or someone made vulnerable by a pre-existing health condition, they can be charged with “intentional murder” and can spend up to 21 years in jail.

Surprisingly, the Chinese hand out the harshest punishments and one may face the death penalty for the same.

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