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Punjab’s Infectious Diseases Ordinance Not Strong Enough To Handle Corona Pandemic

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Usman Khan writes about the newly passed Infectious Diseases Ordinance which he says is not strong enough to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The act is composed of 32 sections which is a far cry from the US ‘Public Health and Safety Act’ which is composed of 3351 sections. It does not provide any definition of ‘quarantine’ or ‘quarantine area’.

As coronavirus spreads throughout Pakistan infecting people across the country, the provinces have passed their Disease Prevention Ordinance meant to control infectious diseases. This reactionary step was taken on March 27 when the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country rose to 1000, with most cities observing partial lockdown.

The act is composed of 32 sections which is a far cry from the US ‘Public Health and Safety Act’ which consists of 3351 sections.

Section 2 of the ordinance is based on definitions, with 10 subsections where there is no definition for ‘Quarantine’ nor any definition for ‘Quarantine area’. In fact, the act does not say anything about quarantine procedures, quarantine area let alone explain the very act of quarantine.

This loophole is shocking considering the entire pandemic centers around quarantine and the major problems Pakistan is facing, in controlling this disease are related to quarantine. This omission will have long lasting effects and the problems associated with quarantine areas and procedures being used in quarantine will remain unaddressed.

Section 3 empowers the secretary as defined in section 2(j) to declare an imminent threat by a disease upon approval of the chief minister.

Now Chapter 2 of the act deals with ‘General Health Protection Measures’ and is composed of 3 sections which are section 4, 5 and 6. No section 4 empowers the secretary to impose duty upon all registered medical practitioners to treat the infected patients and the disease as well as order their health facility i.e. clinic, lab or hospital to diagnose and treat the disease.

Now section 5 deals with protective wear for any class of persons like doctors treating the patients must hear protective gear or security officials or sanitary workers employed there must wear such and in section 5(2) we see that things can be seized and retained like protective gear. The government is empowered to seize such stocks in accordance to this act.

Now section 6 should have been more detailed but it failed since it composed itself of 2 subsections. The section deals with directions in relation to attending functions or burials and section 6(a) imposed general duty upon a person to not have his minor attend school for a specific period in case of a declaration and section 6(b) empowers the director general health to impose specific requirements or restrictions in handling of dead bodies or human remains.

Here the section fails to attend several aspects like how is the period defined or what it means by human remains. Do these human remains mean infected people or people in general as a means to curb gatherings? And what sort of restrictions or requirements can the government be empowered to impose? Can the government be empowered to hold burials in an un-islamic manner which would be in direct conflict with Article 2 and Article 31 of the constitution of Pakistan? Such questions needed to be answered here and this section should have been more expansive and well defined but it failed to do so and a great opportunity was missed in creating an effective law which could be used not just in this pandemic but in all pandemic situations that may arise in the future.

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Chapter 3 deals with control of events, gatherings and premises and it is composed of three sections. Section 7, 8 and 9. The director health general is empowered to impose restrictions upon any gatherings or restrict any number of persons from gathering and such restrictions can be placed upon a place or premises where exit and entry can be banned and such restrictions upon the premises will deal with its owner and in section 9 he is also empowered to create restrictions upon entry and exit of locations.

In this, we come to understand the situation of lockdowns. However, the word ‘restrictions’ is used repeatedly but nowhere are such restrictions defined or their nature defined. Lack of definition always creates an abuse of law.

Chapter 4 deals with control of potentially infectious persons and this chapter is composed of 6 sections. Here we see that Section 10 deals with movement of the infected person and in subsection (2)(a) we see the words ‘Move him to a specified place’ yet the words ‘Specified Place’ are not defined anywhere and he shall be kept there and screened and after 24 hours the medical officer shall decide whether to extend the retention period or declare him not infected and in section 11 the infected must answer any question or produce any document the medical officer demands of him and what type of documents is not defined either.

Section 13 requires guardians to get cooperation from their wards and section 14 imposes a duty upon the head of the family, head of the educational institute, health care provider, in-charge of business or in-charge of place of worship to inform the government of an infected person immediately and failure to do so will lead to penalty, as mentioned in section 18, of 3 months imprisonment or a maximum fine of 50,000 rupees and in second offence shall be charged with one year or a maximum fine of 50,000 rupees.

Section 19 deals with a person running away from a place of retention and first offence lands him 6 months maximum or a maximum fine of 50,000 rupees and second offence earns him maximum imprisonment of 18 months or a fine not exceeding 100,000 rupees.

Section 26 bars courts from challenging any decision made under this act i.e. nobody can file petition against retention of a person or if the relief commissioner evacuate any area or seizes any stock of foods or medicines.

Pakistan was in dire need of a pandemic related legislation and this act is trying to plug a chasm with a piece of cloth. The act did introduce citizen duty to provide information related to or handing of any infected person

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It aims to punish those who contravene the provisions of this act. However, the punishments are simply a slap on the hand with inserting of the word ‘OR’ rather than ‘AND’ it empowers the court to avoid giving jail sentences and focus on fines and it must be stated that as a rule of thumb any offence under 7 years jail punishment is a bailable offence unless specifically mentioned otherwise. Thus, these offences will be bailable allowing many miscreants to avoid punishment or allow the act to become a deterrent. The act also fails to mention ‘Quarantine’ as well as what a ‘Place of retention’ is and this lack of definition will fil to address the massive problem of quarantine that Pakistan is currently suffering from. The act also fails to mention any strategic stock pile procedures or creation of such stocks and simply mentions a relief commissioner who is employed to provide relief and empowered to seize stocks which is grossly undefined and horrifically unexplained and this is in exact opposite of the US act which highly well-defined on such provisions.

The act also fails to address a major problem many Pakistanis are, which are in relation to burials of any person both infected and not infected since Islam has an entire ritual to a funeral and this act does not explain how the government will create requirements for such. Legislations are meant to be expansive and procedural and the mindset of the legislator is shown when he brings forth a creative legislation which is both expansive and procedural but for some time the governments have followed this set pattern where we have 50-60 sections at best with section 2 composed of 10-12 definitions which are hilariously unnecessary in most cases, like the definition of a minor in this act as in section 2(d) which is already defined everywhere yet crucial definitions like ‘Quarantine’ ‘Restriction’ ‘Human remains’ are missing and then 10-20 sections which are ill-defined and improperly worded along with next 10-20 sections dealing with commissions and committees and their formation but not their procedures and then a section which bars courts from entertaining any petition that challenges their decision and the act is then packaged and passed.

This shows the lazy attitude that is employed by our lawmakers and legislators and unless we severely criticise this mishandling, we will continue to see such ill-advised and imperfect legislations that will slowly corrode our legal system.

This act is simply not good enough to tackle the pandemic situation. The government must get serious about its legislations and pass an expansive and effective legislation that can truly act as a shield for the country against any pandemic.

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