Civic Responsibility imposed by Infectious Disease (Prevention, Control and Elimination) Act 2018
The pandemic of COVID-19 has begot diversified scenarios which were absolutely impossible to contemplate few days back. The concept of social distancing is the vital factor now to combat the deadly virus 'corona' which has yet no vaccine and effective medicine. Most of the countries in the world are now in lockdown in order to protect its citizens from this deadly virus.
Although the first reported case was on March 08, in Bangladesh, however it soared rapidly throughout the month of April, 2020 setting record-high deaths in May 2020 with over thousand infected patients every day and death in two digits. Another striking factor is regardless of higher incidence of infections among the age group of over 60 globally, in Bangladesh, people of middle age are getting infected more and the age group of over 60 represents merely a 10 percent of the confirmed cases. The most surprising factor is that Bangladesh is also the only country in the world where coronavirus-related fatalities outstrip recoveries.
The government has sought to enforce social distancing through the lockdown but has not been too successful in this regard so far. Several factors make this a near-impossible task in Bangladesh.The country where most of the people like to live in close proximity to each other, it is very difficult to implement social distancing rules. The concept of social distancing is an oblivion theory in Bangladeshi culture and society.
Even though the Government is incurring huge economic loss, it has allowed consecutive two months' of holiday till now to protect its citizens' life from this deadly virus. However, ensuring social distancing to control the dissemination of coronavirus is becoming an illusion day by day due to the blatant reluctance of majority city dwellers.
In the last two months, several news in the media portrayed various incidents where majority of Bangladeshi people blatantly flouted the guidelines on social distancing.
People visited kitchen markets and other public places without maintaining the requisite distance of one meter which is essential for controlling transmission of COVID-19. Furthermore, there has been incidents like Branbanbaria where mass people attended funeral of a religious leader paying no heed to government's "social distancing" guidelines. People tried to evade the law enforcement agency while moving from one city to another by hiding in the empty oil barrel. In many areas, teenagers were found to play games in open field without maintaining any physical distance. Gathering in the roads and in front of shops has been the common scenario which eventually triggered rapid transmission of COVID-19 in Bangladesh. Whenever police and journalist encountered people who were roaming in the road unnecessarily, they showed callous attitude and lack of awareness regarding the significance of social distancing. Now, huge numbers of people have started leaving Dhaka to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr putting lives at risk among this crisis of COVID-19 pandemic. Even though there are stringent inter-district travel ban, people are adopting desperate measures to leave Dhaka city to celebrate Eid with their families. Desperate travellers are taking the means of Rickshaws, private cars, CNG-run auto rickshaws, human haulers like porimon, nosimon, legunas, ferries etc to commute outside Dhaka.
The emergence of COVID-19 demonstrated the fact that it is not a crisis which can only be tackled by efficient government actions. Rather, it required combined effort of every citizen along with prudent, practical and timely government policies. In Bangladesh, majority of people belong to low income class and have very poor law abiding nature.
A police official of Dhaka Metropolitan told media that they are finding the task of keeping people at their homes very tough as they are playing hide and seek with the police and they are coming out of home breaking all restrictions.
According to public policy experts, the message of legal obligation and bindings should be properly disseminated among general people. In Bangladeshi society, there is a perception that civic obligations and liability is the responsibility of the privileged group. One should not expect civic responsibility or law abiding nature from poor or low income people. In countries like New Zealand and Vietnam, it has been observed that people have strictly followed the rules set by their government which eventually enabled them to control the rapid community transmission of COVID-19. However, in Bangladesh, there is loads of excuse to people to violate the rules given by Government and as a result the number of patients affected by corona virus is increasing day by day.
Government has already resorted to the Infectious Disease (Prevention, Control and Elimination) Act 2018 to adopt policies like flight ban, restrictions on public transportation and long term general holidays. Nevertheless, massive awareness about this Act may prevent various reckless activities by general people. There are several provisions of this Act which impose strict civic responsibility upon each and every citizen of Bangladesh.
For instance, according to section 24 of the 2018 Act, if a person spreads the infectious virus or aid in spreading it or hide it from a person who comes to his contact may be under imprisonment for a term of up to 6 (Six) months' or be imposed a fine of up to BDT 1 (One) lac. This provision may be used against the persons who are going to the hospitals with COVID-19 infections and hiding it from the doctors thereby transmitting the virus to a large number of people without even recognizing the danger of spreading it. Broader
interpretation of this Section may enable government authorities to restrict people's unnecessary roaming on streets during the pandemic. Massive propagation about this law will make people aware about the significance of social distancing as well as the fear of sanction will prohibit reckless and negligent behaviour regarding social distancing.
Section 5 of this Act provides authority to the Department of Health to take necessary measures to protect the people from getting infected to an infectious disease including taking steps to prevent, control and eradicate it. Among the measures, the Department has powers to separate an infected area from other areas, ensure quarantine and isolation of infected persons, restrict movements of train, bus and other vehicles from one place to another. Although the Government is trying to restrict movements of people, nevertheless, the Department of Health could have used this provision strictly for combating movements of people from one district to another during the time of Eid holidays.
The Act of 2018 may be said as a timely statute to address the issues in regard to COVID-19. However, there might be some scope of amendments to it. There has been incidents where mass people forced COVID-19 positive individuals to leave home even during night. The neighborhood have been extremely vindictive towards these individuals. Thus, a new provision may be added ensuring security of COVID-19 patients in their neighborhood as hospitals are suggesting most of the patients to remain at home quarantine if they are found positive.
Nazia Sher is an Apprentice Lawyer and an Associate at Lex Counsel.