Saturday, June 13, 2009

Meeting the swine flu threat

The Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 is being invoked against uncooperative swine flu patients who refuse to be segregated in a hospital to prevent its spread. The Act can be invoked using Section 188 IPC, (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant). An offence under this provision can invite simple imprisonment of one month or a fine of Rs.200 or both. Strangely, Section 4 of the Epidemics Act rules out judicial review! While no one suggests that the Act is likely to be misused against non-patients who are uncooperative with the officials, is it necessary to arm the Executive with such an extraordinary power so as to rule out scope for judicial review? The ingredients of the offence under the Act include knowledge of the order which is allegedly disobeyed by the accused, even though intention to defy the order may not be present. If the accused does not know that such an order to segregate him or her at a hospital exists, there is no remedy under the Act.

It may be interesting to find out whether this Act of 1897 was invoked during the plague in 1994. Curiously enough, the phraseology of the Act may suggest that it cannot be invoked against swine flu patients. Although the Act does not define the word 'epidemic', dictionaries define the word as a widespread occurrence of a disease in a community or a region at a particular time. Considering the isolated cases in India, it is still not an epidemic. The word 'pandemic', on the other hand, refers to a disease prevalent over a whole country or the world, which is what swine flu has been declared to be by the WHO. According to Wikipedia,, a few cases of occurrence of a rare disease may be called an epidemic, but I couldn't find an authoritative definition of the word to convey that sense.

UPDATE: On the other hand, do the authorities feel that the country is threatened with the outbreak of the epidemic - a possible ground to invoke this Act? Do the authorities also find that the existing legal provisions are insufficient to ensure segregation of such patients - another requirement to justify the use of the Act? Well, there are no clear answers.
Post a Comment