Existing law to fight COVID-19

Benajir Anjum Chandni | Published: 20:55, May 13,2020


Benajir Anjum Chandni talks about the effective enforcement of the Infectious Disease (Prevention, Control and Elimination) Act, 2018 and argues that implementing this law in coordination with concerned authorities could mitigate the crisis situation

THE outbreak of COVID-19 has created a huge global health crisis and the story of Bangladesh is not different from that. Bangladesh being a developing country and being one of the most densely populated countries in the world even before the COVID-19 crisis, Bangladesh's health system was already struggling with the increasing burden of disease, the low quality of health care coverage and an inadequate national budget for health.

Due to this outbreak of COVID-19 many countries have forced to adopt measures such as flight bans, mandatory lockdown and social distancing to prevent the recent pandemic from spreading. Like other countries, Bangladesh has been also followed such steps, like banning flights, putting restrictions on public transportations, announced general holidays nationwide et cetera. In Bangladesh, most of the measures has been taken as per the Infectious Disease (Prevention, Control and Elimination) Act, 2018

If we review the Act with the ongoing lockdown situation, it would appear that the effective enforcement of the 2018 Act could have make much more different to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Bangladesh.

As per section 5 of this Act, to prevent the outbreak of infectious diseases, the health ministry may declare any market, mass congregation, station, airport and any port to be closed briefly. Again, arrival, departure or movements through aeroplane, ship, bus, train or any other vehicles can be obstructed temporarily. It has been observed that during the Covid-19 crisis, Bangladesh government has been using this section to maintain lockdown throughout the country. Although, the term used to maintain lockdown is general holidays. In many cases, the lockdown was not effective enough due to lack of enforcement measures.

For example, the incident in Brahamanbaria, thousands of Muslims defied government restrictions and attended the funeral of a religious leader during lockdown period. General people from different parts of Bangladesh traveled to Brahmanbaria to attend the funeral, whereas this massive gathering has raised fears of a potential spike in COVID-19 transmission throughout the country. The concerned authorities should have been pro-active to control the mass gathering, however, they failed completely to prevent it. It appears that due to lack of effective enforcement of section 5 of the 2018 Act, the authority entirely failed to take any necessary steps to avoid such incident which might have grave consequences to the public health nationwide.

Besides, in Section 10, there is the direction for the doctor, treating any infected patient, to notify the concerned civil surgeon if such patient dies and the existence of the disease becomes an alert in such premises or area. In addition, if a boarding, residential or temporary residence owner or person in charge has reason to believe that a person living in the place has been infected, s/he shall promptly notify the concerned civil surgeon and the deputy commissioner. Despite having this section, there are many cases where people having symptoms are acting reluctant to test for COVID-19. Even there are few people who know there might be possibility for being COVID-19 patient, still sitting at home without informing the authorities. Therefore, being ignorant and irresponsible they go out and spread the virus to others.

To prevent such situations, 2018 Act has provision for punishment. As per section 24, person having knowledge about the virus, still not following any prescribed measures, doing any activities which might added to the risk of infection spread more; that person could be guilty under this section. Furthermore, as per this section of the 2018 Act explained that, even, if any affected person hides the matter that he/she already affected, he/she could be guilty under this particular section and can be punished for imprisonment for not more than 6 months and also can be fine not more than 1 lac.

However, it appears that no such action has been taken by the authorities for violation of section 24 of the 2018Act (except a very few cases); although there are numerous cases where infected person or their family hides about the infection. Thus, such violations put other people in danger and these can easily be avoided by strict enforcement of 2018 Act. Moreover, section 14 of the 2018 Act says that, the affected people should be quarantined or isolated for prescribed times. If anyone does not follow the guidelines, necessary measures should be taken against him/her. However, in many cases, the guidelines for quarantined has not been maintained and the authority are not forceful enough to enforce this section of the Act.

Furthermore, to fight the recent outbreak of COVID-19, coordination and co-operation among ministries and numerous policy actors is one of the most important factors that has also confirmed by section 21 of the Act. Recently, we have seen in many incidents that a lack of cooperation and coordination amongst the governments authorities. For instance, initially at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreaks in Bangladesh it was reported in national media that, the health minister seeking to request, all concerned to at least consult the health ministry if others are unwilling to take decisions from the ministry remains the worst of self-defeating stand that questions the raison d’être of the minister and the ministry. The minister as the head of the committee has also not been seen taking measures against such lack of cooperation. And incoordination.

Recently, the government took the decision of reopening the RMG factories which added to the risk of the infection spread. Not only that during the increasing numbers of affected person day by day, they declared to open shopping malls for Eid and reopening the mosques across the country. This could put the whole nation in a very dangerous situation.

Ideally the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research that runs the tests and oversees quarantine and isolation issues, the health ministry that looks into health care, the home affairs ministry that ensures the home quarantine and lockdown issues, the food and the commerce ministry that play the crucial role in keeping the supply chain uninterrupted and the disaster management and relief ministry that makes relief supplies available to make the holiday and quarantine issues successful and as per section 21 of the 2018 Act, all of them should work together.

But unfortunately, the co-operation and coordination are very less visible in many cases and such a lack of coordination is unacceptable when a further threat is impending. If this incoordination persists, infection will eventually spread everywhere and therefore, the situation would be difficult to handle. The government must understand that the fight against the spread of the new coronavirus infection should entail that all relevant agencies work in sync with one another under a central coordination committee, which would plan the mitigation efforts, oversee the execution of all the steps and make further recommendations or make changes in decision, if required.

In light of the above discussion, it can be said that, the existing Infectious Disease (Prevention, Control and Elimination) Act, 2018 is legally good enough to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. However, proper implementation and enforcement is needed to achieve full benefit out of it. There is no doubt that the government is trying hard to reduce the bad impact of the pandemic both in the health care system as well as in the economic sector. But due to lack of inter-sectoral coordination; there is a pervading sense of concern among citizens.

Therefore, lack of implementation and enforcement of the 2018 Act could be more dangerous and may spell a disaster. Beside the government, the citizen also must be self-educated and award about the crisis of COVID-19. It would be an impossible task for the government to fight against the threat alone without the required cooperation from the society and private sectors over all from the citizen of the country as a whole. Therefore, it is needed to circulate the existing laws to the mass people, media and instructions continuously regarding COVID-19 to increase public awareness.

Benajir Anjum Chandni is a trainee lawyer.

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