The Government is in the process of finalizing a new public health bill while repealing the 125 year old Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. While few will question the need for replacing such an old and outdated law, there is also urgent need for carefully studying the various provisions of the new bill so that it is not coercive and does not violate of basic rights of citizens. There are at least five reasons which prompt the need for such caution.
Firstly, in 2017 a different bill was prepared which was called the Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bio-Terrorism and Disasters) Bill 2017. In a review of this bill several senior medical experts and health activists had found this to be unduly coercive and some of its provisions almost verged on the draconian, denying basic and fundamental rights to people while arming the authorities with excessive powers. Although this bill did not become an Act, the debate initiated on the basis of its various provisions has emphasized the need for caution.
Secondly, the actual experience of COVID-19 management should also awaken us to the need for caution. Even without the availability of adequate and specific legislative backing, governments of several countries including India imposed unduly stringent, sudden and prolonged lockdowns which caused avoidable mass distress. With stronger legal backing such measures can become even more likely and hence the need for caution.
Thirdly, enough evidence is available that several very powerful and resourceful interests including multinational companies have sought to use the pandemic for their own selfish interests. It is after all during the COVID phase, when most national economies were shrinking and tens of millions of people were being pushed below the poverty line, that the billionaires of the world managed to increase their wealth and income like never before and more numbers were added to the billionaires’ club than ever before. How did this happen? Trying to answer this question will take us to a complex and intriguing world where very high-level efforts are being made to change the conditions in favor of the richest as well in favor of authoritarian forces. Even a pandemic is used by these forces in highly opportunistic ways. While vaccines have an important public health role if these are based on science and science only, havoc can be caused if decisions regarding these are based on the pursuit of unprecedented enormous profits. Even profit is becoming relatively less important to these forces compared to their quest of seeking control of the health sector. This can be compared to the quest of the GM seed companies to gain control of the food sector. The authoritarian trends and the big profit trends are mutually supportive and feed on each other.
It is such contexts that we have to be extremely cautious towards any efforts, legislative or otherwise, which can strengthen these forces and trends by placing excessive powers in the hands of authorities while placing more curbs on basic rights of people. It will be a sad day if a new law is made which further strengthens authoritarian trends further while disempowering people.
Fourthly, we have to be extra cautious as some governments have been behaving in peculiar ways. We are grateful to the Supreme Court for making it clear that COVID vaccines are not mandatory, and while the government readily admitted in the Court to COVID vaccine not being compulsory or being imposed on anyone against her will, in reality various rules at several stages were such that many people would have found living and working very difficult without taking the vaccine. It is not hidden from anyone as to how adverse side-effects were systematically under-reported in India.
Last but not the least, the WHO becomes an important point for pandemic related matters and so it is important to state that WHO policies and decisions are also being increasingly influenced by narrow interests. One billionaire, one of the richest persons in the world, has emerged as one of its top financiers in recent years and this billionaire has faced very frequent criticism for his unethical promotion of several vaccines and GM crops. With this kind of financiers, the WHO has been frequently involved in many unseemly controversies, for example at the time of the highly exaggerated swine flu scare in 2009. Several aspects of the role of the WHO and its top boss have attracted criticism in more recent times too. So we have to be careful that the dictates of WHO are not used to justify any agenda which is harmful for us.
Due to all these factors there is a clear need for caution and what the government proposes by way of a new public health law should be clearly examined in detail for all its implications. The situation just now appears to be, as reported in media, that a draft submitted by the NITI Ayog is going to a seven member committee which will submit its report within a month while also taking the comments of various state governments. This draft needs to be shared with people at an early stage so that enough time is available for independent experts and public interest organizations to look at it carefully and give their informed comments. What ultimately matters is that the new law is genuinely guided by enlightened and well-informed public interest and not by any agenda set by narrow interests.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Man over Machine and Planet in Peril.