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 have joined this bandwagon has been a systematic increase in incidents of attacks and harassment of its nurses, doctors and other medical personnel. Fueled by paranoia and fear in an increasingly trying time, these ill-informed attacks seem to target medical professional who are feared to be carrying and spreading the diseases. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare1 in its press release dated April 22, 2020 said that, "perceived as carriers of the diseases, there has been stigmatization and ostracization 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 to their optimum best and maintaining their morale, which is a critical need in this hour of national health crisis."
Necessitated by the growing incidents, and upon asserting that the government has a zero tolerance for violence or intimidation of its medical professionals, which includes its dedicated group of doctors, nurses and para-medics 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.
The key amendments of the colonial legislation seek to protect its healthcare personnel's, clinics and other facilities.
Key Features of the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance
- It makes any attack upon them a cognizable and a non-bailable offence.
- It solidifies the definition of what constitutes as violence i.e., harassment, physical injury and damage to property, as well as who is covered under the ambit of healthcare personnel.
- Further, commission or abetment of any acts of violence against said healthcare professionals shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of three months to five years, followed with a fine of Rs.50,000/- to Rs.2,00,000/-. In aggravated cases concerning grievous hurt, the ordinance directs imprisonment for a term of six months, and up to seven years, and with a fine of Rs.1,00,000/- to Rs.5,00,000/.
- The law also envisions time bound investigations, in addition to compensation for injury or damage to property, to almost twice the fair market value.
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.
Sanctioned by President Ram Nath Kovind, the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 20203 seeks to cover the limitations and gaps in our existing state laws that usually do not cover occupational harassment at home and workplace4. It is unfortunate that our greatest assets during the pandemic are under attack, and the same cannot be allowed to continue. It was post the cabinet meeting, that Mr. Amit Shah tweeted, "safety and dignity of our doctors at their workplace is non-negotiable. It is our collective responsibility to ensure a conducive atmosphere for them at all times."
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.
1 Pib.gov.in. 2020. Promulgation Of An Ordinance To Amend The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 In The Light Of The Pandemic Situation Of COVID-19. [online] Available at:  Pib.gov.in. 2020. Promulgation Of An Ordinance To Amend The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 In The Light Of The Pandemic Situation Of COVID-19. [online] Available at: https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=202493
2 Egazette.nic.in. 2020. The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance 2020. [online] Available at: http://egazette.nic.in/WriteReadData/2020/219108.pdf
3 Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020
4 Sharma, N., 2020. President Approves Ordinance To Protect Healthcare Workers. [online] Livemint. Available at: https://www.livemint.com/news/india/president-approvesordinance-making-violence-against-doctors-punishable-offence11587616074735.html.
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