In wake of the COVID-19 crisis and nationwide lockdown, India has been grappling with unprecedented challenges that range from maintaining law and order, access to medical facilities, food, social security to availability of medical facilities. The newest hurdle to join this bandwagon has been a systematic increase in incidents of attacks and harassment of its nurses, doctors and other medical personnel.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said that,
“Perceived as carriers of the diseases, there has been stigmatization and sometimes worse, acts of unwarranted violence and harassment against our medical professionals. Such a situation tends to hamper the medical community from performing their duties and maintaining their morale, which is a critical need in this hour of national health crisis.”
The bill ensures there is zero tolerance for violence or intimidation of its medical professionals, who are spearheading a global health crisis, the Union Cabinet on April 22, 2020 approved the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, an Ordinance to amend the Epidemics Diseases Act, 1897. Thereafter, the Home Ministry has also directed States to appoint nodal officers, in order to further address other safety issues, and ensure that safety and well being of our active medical professionals is ensued.
Healthcare service personnel: The Ordinance defines healthcare service personnel as a person who while carrying out his duties in relation to epidemic related responsibilities, may come in direct contact with affected patients and thereby is at the risk of being impacted by such disease, and includes—
- public and clinical healthcare providers such as doctors and nurses,
- any person empowered under the Act to take measures to prevent the outbreak of the disease,
- other persons designated as such by the state government.
Act of Violence: An ‘act of violence’ includes any of the following acts committed against a healthcare service personnel:
- harassment impacting living or working conditions,
- harm, injury, hurt, or danger to life,
- obstruction in discharge of his duties,
- loss or damage to the property or documents of the healthcare service personnel.
Powers of the central government: The Act specifies that the central government may regulate:
- the inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port, and
- the detention of any person intending to travel from the port, during an outbreak.
- The Ordinance expands the powers of the central government to regulate the inspection of any bus, train, goods vehicle, ship, vessel, or aircraft leaving or arriving at any land port, port or aerodrome.
Protection for healthcare personnel and damage to property: The Ordinance specifies that no person can commit or abet the commission of an act of violence against a healthcare service personnel, or cause damage or loss to any property during an epidemic.
Contravention of this provision is punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three months, but which may extend to five years, and with fine, which shall not be less than fifty thousand rupees, but which may extend to two lakh rupees.
If an act of violence against healthcare service personnel causes grievous harm, the person committing the offence will be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months, but which may extend to seven years and with fine, which shall not be less than one
Lakh rupees, but which may extend to five lakh rupees. These offences are cognizable and non-bailable.
Key Features of the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance
- Compensation: Persons convicted of offences under the Ordinance will also be liable to pay compensation to the healthcare service personnel whom they have hurt. The Court will determine such compensation. In the case of damage or loss of property, the compensation payable to the victim will be twice the amount of the fair market value of the damaged or lost property, as determined by the Court. If the convicted person fails to pay the compensation, the amount will be recovered as an arrear of land revenue under the Revenue Recovery Act, 1890.
- Investigation: Cases registered under the Ordinance will be investigated by a police officer not below the rank of Inspector. The investigation must be completed within 30 days from the date of registration of the First Information Report.
- Trial: The inquiry or trial should be concluded within one year. If it is not concluded within this time period, the Judge must record the reasons for the delay and extend the time period. However, the time period may not be extended for more than six months at a time.
- When prosecuting a person for causing grievous harm to healthcare service personnel, the Court will presume that person is guilty of the offence, unless the contrary is proved.
- Protection to persons acting under Act- No suit or other legal proceeding shall lie against any person for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this Act.
“No doctor will want their patients to suffer in any way, but please realize that doctors are not gods. We are trying our best to help patients. People need to trust their doctors”.– Dr Tejas Thakker, Apollo Hospitals
The COVID-19 pandemic poses a unique challenge, and several states have enacted special laws, such as the present ordinance, to offer protection to doctors and other medical professionals. It is contemplated that the Ordinance will positively impact the morale and reinstate trust and confidence back into our healthcare community, such that they can continue to contribute during these difficult times, and to also highlight and uphold the nobility and integrity of their profession and its influence.
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