Post Pandemic World: Need for Legislative Reforms

A Gavel in front of Indian Flag

The infamous Murphy’s Law states that, “If anything can go wrong, it will”.  It began in the month of December 2019 when the world slowly started hearing the word “CoronaVirus”. At first it was just a local flu exclusive to the city of Wuhan in China and flu outbreaks are quite common and happen periodically all over the world like any other form of calamity; however who knew in the ensuing months this particular virus would be serenading our lives as an unending nightmare. It did not take much time for the deadly virus to reach India with the first case being reported in the state of Kerala. Several state governments followed the suit, thus the period of lockdown began. 

Globally several political anguishes followed and insinuations about China preplanning this virus attack to gain a political and economic hegemony over the globe surfaced  and Chinese fiercely retorted to it by adopting a “Wolf Warrior” strategy to quell all the allegation defensively and it is still a matter of debate. However, the pertinent question that should be addressed is how prepared is the world and in particular the second most populous country in the world India is in dealing with a crisis like the Corona pandemic.

Deficiency of Strategy is a Political Suicide

Past epidemics, endemics and pandemics have destructively ravaged the human population but managed bounce back strongly. Although the fatalities of each disaster in earlier days were constrained to a particular geographical location, the Corona pandemic is complex due to the major 20th century phenomena, ‘globalization’.

The world today has become one collective global village interdependent on each other where impacts on one place ripples across borders. Unlike an economic crisis a pandemic is more catastrophic due to the unpredictable nature of destruction to human lives and economy. The World Bank recently confirmed that the world is heading towards the worst recession since World War II. Though such fallouts are inevitable consequences of a pandemic, it also highlights one thing: the lack of strategy to combat such situations. The World Health Organization promulgated several plans including the lockdown however the damage was done.

Global strategy may not be conducive due to various political, social, economic and cultural differences of countries. In addition, the nature of the international law is non-binding as the Principle of Sovereignty of States deems that no state is under the power of any other state or organizations such as the United Nations, European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization. International institutions intend to foster cooperation among member nations with different historical backgrounds hence making their laws inapplicable to the rest of the world.

When the Covid-19 outbreak reached its zenith in China, the first state to crumble under the impact was The Republic  of Taiwan. However, Taiwan showcased a paradigm shift in the way they dealt with the SARS attack that devastated the country in 2003 to the present COVID-19 attack through sheer proactiveness. The country with the top World Class Health Care system with Universal Coverage is not the member of the World Health Organization still exhibited their own list of 124 rules to be adhered by the public immediately after getting a reality check on the worsening situation in China. New Zealand and India enforced the National lockdown on the same day and was lauded by the world at large.Though incomparable on account of population with the Indian city of Pune having the same population as New Zealand, it still does not discount the stricter lockdown strategy and aggressive testing followed by the kiwis in comparison with the relaxed and laid back approach adopted by the Indian Government. Ironically the day New Zealand was declared Covid free, India climbed the ranks of Top 5 most affected countries in the world.

Initially, South Korea had a rough encounter with COVID-19 being the second most affected country in Asia. They turned the tables to a success story that epitomized an effective relaxed lockdown strategy, simply through technology reliant testing and tracing campaigns. A lesson learned by South Koreans from the  Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (2015). All the four countries mentioned have diverse demographic characteristics , culturally distinct features and different impacts of law & order. But they fall under the single penumbra called ‘Democracy’. It is apparent that a well-designed domestic strategys exclusive from the global strategy helped the countries to manage the health crisis. 

Therefore, a lack of effective domestic strategy could possibly be a political suicide by the states and it is the duty of independent states to devise a strategy encompassing a holistic approach  to ensure economic stability. The law of the land plays an important role in providing direction and a strong decentralized legal enforcement gains significant importance during the times of chaos.

Reformation of Legislation in India

It took a while for India and her citizens to catch up to the seriousness of COVID-19. The first lockdown as a countering measure to reduce the transmission of disease was announced in the month of March 2020 which initially was supposed to last a span of 21 days has crossed more than 50 days more than one and half lakhs of active cases with a mortality rate of 7000 plus.

India faced other demographic and social issues like poverty, illiteracy, the exodus of migration of migrants from cities to their hometowns or even the ordinary citizens forced to come out of their dens to buy the essential commodities that could have led to this spike in cases. But most importantly, COVID episode exposed the government’s lack of proactive approach to handle the situation. An aggressive promotion of social distancing and locking down the economy seems to be futile as there are no signs of flattening the curve. Although the lockdown ended up being the only option, an inadequate and anachronistic legal framework to handle the pandemic at large scale undoubtedly exacerbated the situation.

The only piece of legislation in India is the “The Epidemic Act of 1897” enacted by the erstwhile British Government 120 years ago. However, this act (which is four sections long) only empowers the government to check the people who are suspected carriers of diseases and grossly inadequate for a pandemic like the Covid 19 in the globalized world. While the global governance and international movements have become more prominent since the late 20th century, the legal procedures lag behind the present requirement of managing the pandemic.  

The first step towards reformation would be the enactment of National Health Bill 2009 which would have far-reaching consequences on the Indian health scenario. It would demand greater levels of professionalism, standards of care, accountability, from the care providers besides ensuring protection for them. The bill if enacted can lay down a framework that can guide the governments contrary to the archaic Epidemic Act.

Secondly, Article 352 to Article 360 of the Constitution of India deals with emergency provisions that can be declared when there is an action or threat of external aggression or internal rebellion. Art 360 of the Constitution of India empowers the president to declare a financial emergency during any financial instability and this was expected in the present crisis. However, a pandemic can never be constrained to just financial instability, containing the transmission of disease, maintaining a safe environment for marginal groups needs to be considered. Therefore, a new breed of emergency should be amended into the Constitution of India called “The Medical and Hazardous Emergency”. This would give the Central government a leverage to restrict the movements of the people and impose a stricter stand than the present Lockdown and also eliminate the confusions between the orders of Central and State. However, the same can only be implemented if there is a proper protocol and guidelines laid and that is where the importance of the National Health Bill comes to the fore.

Thirdly, similar to corporates having a Business Continuity Plan that ensures the smooth functioning of their companies even when encountered with unprecedented adversity. It is high time that the Government devises such an action plan – not exclusive to pandemics but any other situations in a precautionary manner. Since the world is delving very deep into advanced research on new viruses it is better to anticipate and be prepared for such situations in the future.

Lastly, the norms of proper sanitation, personal hygiene, social distancing in public should be ingrained into the psyche of the citizens and legislation can only achieve their objective with the cooperation of people.

Apart from pumping in financial resources to revive the economy, legislative reformation plays a predominant role in organizing our stakeholders to deal with the current pandemic and better prepare for future health crises.

Varsha Menon
Advocate currently pursuing post graduation (LLM) on Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Administration in Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University