Panic, Pandemic and Punjab Infectious Diseases Ordinance 2020
SARS-CoV-2 (more commonly known as the COVID-19 or Coronavirus) needs no introduction. Its outbreak has resulted in about 50,000 deaths and patients have been multiplying every single day at an alarming rate. Many states are hopeless, yet some have advanced extensive measures and lodged countless proposals.
Pakistan remains in dire need of such proposals and measures. Cases here are evidently rampant, with nearly 2,000 being reported in less than a month. The whole nation is facing the threat of this tragedy. Such a calamity is as new for us as it is for any other country, but this is truly the first epidemic Pakistan has experienced and we need to gear up to fight it. It is pertinent to note that unlike other developed countries, any measure must be made in line with our capabilities as a nation.
So, what is Pakistan doing to combat this? On the 30th of March, the incumbent Prime Minister, Imran Khan, introduced a number of initiatives to be taken by the government. These include an Insaaf-relief program and a relief fund with an account drawn in the National Bank of Pakistan. The Prime Minister hinted that the funds would be beneficial for taxpayers as well – how it will be so is still unknown. Other measures include a voluntary force, namely the “Tiger Force”, comprising committed workers and the youth tasked with spreading awareness. Many individuals have indeed started to sign up for the force already.
It was further proposed that if a business or company did not lay off its workers and in turn facilitated them with sufficient wages, such companies would be awarded loans alongside perks by the State Bank of Pakistan. However, no law or rule has been promulgated for the implementation of any of the aforementioned initiatives.
Legally speaking, Pakistan does not have comprehensive laws on epidemics, except for the Sindh Epidemic Diseases Act 2014 and the Epidemic Diseases Act 1958 which is an amended version of the 1897 Act. Both statutes, however, are not very helpful as they are brief and do not accommodate our current situation.
On the 27th of March, the Punjab Infectious Diseases (Prevention and Control) Ordinance 2020 was passed with an aim to “make provisions for prevention and control for infectious diseases in the Punjab and matters ancillary and connected thereto.” Considering the enormity of the issue and the doubling up of cases with every passing day, the Ordinance appears too general with regard to its provisions and fails to address numerous circumstances that should have been catered to.
The Ordinance authorizes a Secretary (i.e. Secretary to the government, primary and secondary healthcare departments) and, in some cases, medical practitioners, to impose restrictions and duties regarding how to deal with infectious people, places, gatherings, etc. It gives procedural guidelines to the victims of the virus on how they are to be treated. Sections 17-20 of the Ordinance further categorize punishment according to the level of offence committed by an infected person. While it is commendable that Punjab has imposed these rules, they do not cover many circumstances not mentioned in the Ordinance.
Most duties in the Ordinance have been addressed to “medical officers”. Section 2, subsection (e) vaguely defines a “notified medical officer” as someone “notified for the purpose of the Ordinance by the Secretary”. The Ordinance, however, lays down no criteria according to which such notification will be made, such as the amount of experience one must possess, any specific academic credentials or basic pay scale grade, etc. This gives arbitrary liberties to practically any medical practitioner to handle infected persons. Many patients can suffer because of this.
Some of the duties that the aforementioned officer can exercise include the power to retain an infected person for an unspecified period of time if deemed necessary, or discontinue retention altogether (Section 10, subsections 3-6). This discretion can prove to be hazardous if a medical officer misjudges a case or fails to adequately examine it. It is, therefore, crucial to appoint a certain number of officers who actually qualify to carry out these duties. Moreover, it would be prudent to set a maximum limit for retention, e.g. in the case of Coronavirus, a fourteen-day period usually suffices for the incubation period. If a person tests positive, he or she may be retained for an additional thirty-day period, or till such time that the person recovers.
Section 4, subsection (a) gives a Secretary (i.e. Secretary to the government, primary and secondary healthcare departments), subject to the Chief Minister’s approval, the power to direct all medical practitioners to treat cases of infection or contamination. As commendable as the task of risking life and saving victims may be, many may not be able to carry it out for some reason or the other. The direction is subject to confirmation, but is it definite? Do practitioners have the right to withdraw from their duty? Are there any circumstances which would allow one to withdraw? All of this has not been made clear and it is unlikely that the practitioners are being excused for not conforming with the Secretary’s directives.
The Ordinance also does not provide safety guidelines for medical practitioners working on the front-lines. There is no mention of the protection or precautions which must be afforded to such people. They are only required to carry out their duties. Shouldn’t the government or Ministry of Health have any duties towards them as well? Compare this with the United Kingdom’s comprehensive Corona Virus Act 2020 composed of 102 sections. It allows the relevant authority to “indemnify a person in respect of a qualifying liability (in tort) incurred by the person, or make arrangements for a person to be indemnified, in respect of a qualifying liability incurred by the person.”
The Ordinance not only neglects the protection of healthcare workers but also of infected persons. While there may be ample instructions on how patients are supposed to be retained if deemed necessary be a medical officer, the issue is that we still do not have enough quarantine centres. The Ordinance repeatedly makes mention of a “specified place” that they must be kept in, but there is no reference to how they are supposed to be kept or what resources they are supposed to be provided with. The welfare of infected persons who actually have to go through the process has become a moot point.
According to the Ordinance, an infected person who escapes quarantine or does not comply with the given precautions may face imprisonment or be fined upto PKR 50,000. Such acts have been categorized as offences under Sections 17, 18, and 19. However, the Ordinance fails to recognize any mistreatment that may occur. It also does not take into account any judicial decree that may be awarded to persons treated unfairly. What remedies would an unjustly quarantined person have? The same question arises for medical practitioners. Do they have any judicial remedy as a result of inequity?
The purpose of implementing the Ordinance is to crush the epidemic. However, failure to provide a yardstick may make its implementation more difficult or cause it to be applied wrongly or arbitrarily. In fact, the purpose of the Ordinance itself gets crushed if it does not attempt to address all those affected by the pandemic.
There are further aspects of this epidemic which are repeatedly being ignored. What wage benefits, if any, is the working class getting during the lock-down? Are there any protective measures for those who have no source of income during this time? Is there any relief for those unable to pay rent? Many social workers and NGOs are working effortlessly to provide ration packages to the underprivileged but have any packages been distributed by the government itself?
Another neglected area is the lack of mental health initiatives for patients as well as the general public. There are no provisions for differently-abled citizens and how their treatment may vary from other people infected by Coronavirus. Almost every individual seems to be surviving in a depressive state right now. Patients are seen as a threat and isolating them makes them even more disturbed. There is already a lack of mental health resources but it is high time that some facilities do get arranged at this time for the well-being of the society as a whole. Online sessions can be arranged by authorized practitioners, especially for the benefit of those infected and isolated.
It must be kept in mind that the Ordinance is only for Punjab. No nationwide legislation has been enacted by the federal government which can provide uniform measures to help ‘flatten the curve’ with regard to the burden of the outbreak on healthcare resources. Our legislators must taken into account the consequences that may flow if significant matters are left unaddressed.
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 she might be associated.