Ill-Equipped and Caught Off-Guard: Pakistan Must Quickly Use Legislative Mechanisms to Halt the Spread of COVID-19
Epidemic and pandemic diseases have been around since time immemorial. Such viral pathogens catch humanity off-guard and are often difficult to treat. However, a remedial measure such as the rapid introduction of good policy and legislation can bridle the rampant dissemination of communicable diseases.
Pakistan, as an underdeveloped country, is more vulnerable to healthcare havoc as its social and economic conditions are unfavorable to deal with pandemics, possibly leading to mass infection and mortality. The modus operandi or legal course to follow in such circumstances is not specified in advance, leaving legislators unprepared and catching them off-guard during the emergence of an epidemic. Ideally, statutory policy and emergency protocols should be in place prior to any future occurrence of a pandemic. The main problem during any pandemic is to stop the dissemination of communicable virus particles from infected individuals and carriers to healthy members of the public. Well-drafted and fast-tracked legislation will ensure better management at both national and international levels.
Moreover, a crucial factor to consider in implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for prevention during a pandemic is educating the public about the gravity of the disease, its prevention, and the importance of social distancing which, if not voluntarily adhered to, should be enforced through legal means by the police and/or the armed forces.
According to Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, it is the basic right of every living human being to receive adequate medical attention and medical care which covers all aspects even in emergency situations. The relevant part is reproduced below:
“Article 25(1). Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control…”
Public health and safety referred to in the aforementioned article exclusively cover the right of medical care for all people irrespective of color, creed and race. If diseases break out at a global level, the Constitution of World Health Organization can serve to provide initial policy guidelines to eradicate the pandemic through curative and preventive measures. Article 2(g) of the Constitution of World Health Organization empowers the WHO and imposes responsibility on it to do so in the following words:
“In order to achieve its objective, the functions of the Organization shall be:
…(g) to stimulate and advance work to eradicate epidemic, endemic and other diseases…”
During a medical emergency situation worldwide, the Executive Board of WHO, through its Constitution, has been empowered to deal with and combat the epidemic. Article 28(i) of the WHO Constitution has been reproduced below for reference:
The functions of the Board shall be:
… (i) to take emergency measures within the functions and financial resources of the Organization to deal with events requiring immediate action. In particular it may authorize the Director-General to take the necessary steps to combat epidemics, to participate in the organization of health relief to victims of a calamity and to undertake studies and research the urgency of which has been drawn to the attention of the Board by any Member or by the Director-General.”
Every state which is a member of the Health Assembly of WHO needs to inform the WHO regarding the spread of the epidemic statistically and report the data for action. Article 64 of the WHO Constitution has been reproduced below for reference:
Each Member shall provide statistical and epidemiological reports in a manner to be determined by the Health Assembly.”
Historically, conventions had been organized to formulate international standards to control epidemic and pandemic disasters. The 1374 Venice Convention for Quarantine for Plague, the 1851 Paris Convention de First International Sanitary Conference, the 1947 Geneva WHO Epidemiological Information Service, the 1951 Geneva International Sanitary Regulations, and the 1969 Geneva International Health Regulations hold monumental status in medical history, specifically in relation to epidemic and pandemic situations.
In Pakistan also, laws have been enacted to adhere to international standards, but additional legislation and more effective enforcement is still needed to prevent viruses from spreading further. There may be a deficiency in the Constitution of Pakistan 1973 with regard to policy measures for pandemic situations, though Article 232 of the Constitution seems to be appropriate for the declaration of emergencies:
“232.(1) If the President is satisfied that a grave emergency exists in which the security of Pakistan, or any part thereof, is threatened by war or external aggression, or by internal disturbance beyond the power of a Provincial Government to control, he may issue a Proclamation of Emergency…”
Article 38 of the Constitution of Pakistan makes it mandatory for the state to provide medical relief to citizens. In case of an epidemic, it becomes necessary to declare a public health emergency, for which there is only one old statute, the Public Health (Emergency Provisions) Ordinance 1994 which is redundant and ineffective in dealing with novel situations. Section 14 of the Public Health (Emergency Provisions) Ordinance 1994 describes the overriding effect of this Ordinance on other laws in the following words:
“14. Effect of other laws — The provisions of this Ordinance and of any rules and orders made thereunder shall have effect notwithstanding anything contained in any law defining the powers, duties or obligations of a local authority.”
The Ordinance has superseding status when in force, even when it is not equipped to deal with modern day challenges.
Another legislative deficiency can be found in the Epidemic Diseases Act 1958 which was enacted to deal with spreadable diseases but also proved to be ill-equipped to control the situation in a timely manner. This law also needs to be repealed immediately or amended at the very least.
It is now up to the government, the legislature and other concerned institutions to ensure faster controls and better mechanisms to curb the current public health emergency, introduce new legislative mechanisms to deal with the novel virus, and take necessary measures to quickly introduce, enact and enforce interim measures such as Ordinances in order to prevent mass infection and needless loss of human life.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.