Overview of Legal Measures Taken During COVID-19 Lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic is not unknown to anyone now. It has spread all over the world, including Pakistan, with a rapid increase in the number of patients suffering from this disease.

To counter the emergency situation, the state imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) but due to confused communication from the government and a lack of proper measures and awareness, the public seemed to take the matter very lightly which ultimately led to chaos.

We will review the topic in the following dimensions:

  • Section 144 of CrPC also known as the ‘lockdown law’;
  • Laws relating to public health also referred to as ‘quarantine law’;
  • Measures taken by the government to counter the situation; and
  • Improvement needed in relevant laws.

Section 144 of CrPC

Section 144 of CrPC is commonly known as the ‘lockdown law.’ It empowers the District Administration to issue orders in public interest which may place a ban on an activity for a specific period of time. Such a ban is enforced by the police which registers cases under section 188 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) for violations of the ban. Section 188 carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment for six months, or fine, or both. In order to provide a speedy remedy in matters relating to annoyance or injury to any person lawfully employed, or danger to human life, health or safety, or disturbance of public tranquility, or a riot, or an affray or prevention from illegal possession, the District Magistrate may pass temporary written orders to any specific person or public in general to abstain from a certain act. In Pakistan, the government has been imposing a lockdown in several places under S.144 to maximize public safety and minimize the threat of coronavirus. Such an order can remain in force for a maximum of 2 months, subject to further orders of the provincial government to increase duration. Section 144 has a very wide scope but its main purpose is to maintain peace and order in order to regulate routine life.

Laws Relating to Public Health

The main laws dealing with public health are provided in Chapter 14 of the PPC. Quarantine generally refers to keeping a person or animal away from others to prevent a disease from spreading. Section 271 of the aforementioned PPC Chapter stipulates punishments for disobeying a quarantine rule promulgated by the federal or provincial government to stop the growth of any infectious disease. Any person knowingly disobeying such a rule is to be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 6 months, or with a fine, or both. Section 271 PPC can be imposed on the public alongside Section 144 CrPC in order to save lives.

Sections 268, 269 and 270 PPC are also relevant in this regard. They categorize such acts as public nuisance whereby any person likely to spread an infection or disease dangerous to life, negligently or malignantly, is to be punished with imprisonment of 6 months extending to 2 years, or with fine, or both, while trial is to be conducted under Chapter 10 of the CrPC.

Measures Taken by Government

Although the measures taken by the government have not been well-planned, the government is hopefully doing its best to counter the situation. Here are some highlights of the steps taken:

  • A team of Chinese health experts led by Luo Zhaohui, Ambassador of China to Pakistan, visited the National Institute of Health (NIH) for sharing their experiences in managing and combating COVID-19.
  • The government chalked out a plan to provide food ration to daily wagers, expected to cost around PKR 50 billion.
  • A second shipment of medical aid including ventilators (15), face masks (300,000) and N-95 masks (20,000) from China also arrived in Pakistan.
  • The Punjab Infectious Diseases Prevention and Control Ordinance 2020 was promulgated. The promulgation of this Ordinance enables the Government of Punjab to take all necessary measures to prevent and protect the public from COVID-19 and any such diseases and endemics in future. The Ordinance seems to be inadequate in its implementation at the moment.
  • Registration for the Prime Minister’s ‘Corona Relief Tiger Force’ was initiated and volunteers were assigned responsibilities on a daily basis. The impact of such a measure is yet to be assessed accurately.
  • The Sindh government has launched an online portal and smartphone application named Sindh Relief Initiative Application through which welfare organisations can register themselves and work with official authorities to provide food and essential items to daily wagers who are unable to find work during the lockdown.

Improvements In Law

Pakistan has enacted laws for almost every scenario but due to a lack of effective implementation they seem to fail. They lack the provisions that a modern society needs. The legislature does not pay heed to implementation issues while making new laws or updating existing laws.

The Punjab Infectious Diseases Prevention and Control Ordinance 2020 does not provide a clear status of private health centers which provide relief to 70% of the public in Punjab. It seems to lack consultation from experts and appears to be implemented in a hurry as it focuses more on the punishment for violators of law rather than the cure and prevention of disease.

We must take stringent measures to address the situation as we lack legal cover to deal with disasters in a multidimensional way. We are still using laws enacted by the British back in 1897. Our legislation needs to address modern methods of outbreak prevention and disease control, such as the establishment of surveillance and early warning systems and a geographical information system to map the spread of disaster and disease. Moreover, tackling a panicked situation is not only the responsibility of the state but also requires the prudence of the people. We must respect laws and act in compliance with them, adopt any measures necessary to seek awareness and, most importantly, should not believe and spread rumors. As a nation we do tend to lack ethics and adopt things which only benefit us and harm, exploit and defraud others even during a pandemic. Such insensitive and callow behaviour needs to stop.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which she might be associated.

See also: https://courtingthelaw.com/2020/04/28/commentary/is-curfew-an-extended-form-of-section-144/

See also: https://courtingthelaw.com/2020/04/10/laws-judgments-2/panic-pandemic-and-punjab-infectious-diseases-ordinance-2020/

Sukaina Tehreem

Author: Sukaina Tehreem

The writer is a student at Gillani Law College, BZU Multan. She also serves as an Advisor to the Youth Minister of Law and Justice at National Youth Assembly and runs a legal blog by the name of Annotate Law.