Public Health Law in times of COVID-19 : perspective from India

 

About two months after the WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic, India dived into a 21 day lockdown. For the general public, daily life came to a halt ; but for our health care workers, it was time to suit up for the battle. With the responsibility of the health of 1.3 billion Indians on their shoulders, our healthcare professionals stood up to face this crisis.

Soon, worrisome news of lack of PPEs surfaced on a regular basis. Healthcare professionals had to use helmets, raincoats, newspapers, polythene bags, and other similar items while dealing with COVID-19 patients. Doctors, nurses, and other professionals put their own health on the back-burner, and continued to perform their duties at the cost of risking their own lives. The lack of graded protective gear exposed a number of healthcare professionals to the virus.

Dr. Jerryl Banait, a public-spirited doctor from Nagpur, Maharashtra, approached Ms. Astha Sharma, an Advocate-on-record in the Supreme Court of India, highlighting these glaring issues; I had an opportunity to assist her in the matter.

Considering the gravity of the situation, we filed a public interest litigation (PIL)1 before the Supreme Court . The PIL south to ensure availability of WHO standardized PPEs including sterile medical / Nitrile gloves, starch apparels, medical masks, goggles, face shield, respirators (i.e., N – 95 Respirator Mask or Triple Layer Medical Mask), shoe covers, head covers and coveralls / gowns to all Health Workers including doctors, nurses, ward boys, other medical and para-medical professionals actively attending to, and treating patients suffering from COVID-19 in India. Mr.Sunil Fernandes, a leading Counsel from Delhi joined team and appeared before the Supreme Court through video conferencing hearing on April 1 2020.

The Supreme Court was pleased to take cognizance of the issue, and directed the Government of India to examine the petition, and place its position before the Court on the next date.

In the meantime, disturbing incidents of attacks and social ostracization against healthcare workers emerged in the news. As the number of such events kept multiplying, we thought of reporting the additional issues to the Court.

Soon, we had to expand to include a team of seven lawyers burning the midnight oil to present recent developments before the Court. We were also supported by public health professionals who helped us understand the issue better . We consulted them from time to time.

Supreme Court of India On the date of the hearing, the Supreme Court took serious note of the lack of protective gear for healthcare professionals, and issued a series of directions to the Government of India, such as to ensure availability of Personal Protected Equipment, boost domestic production capacity, impose necessary export restrictions, provide necessary police security to doctors and medical staff in Hospitals, and take strict action against persons who obstruct doctors from performing their duties.

The directions issued by the Supreme Court are interim in nature, and the position of the availability of PPEs will be subject to further judicial scrutiny as and if required.

COVID-19 throws many challenges in different countries across the world. These are unprecedented times but democratic countries need to ensure rights of citizens are maintained. I extend my gratitude to the medical fraternity for the endless hours of work put by them . Public health lawyers need to stand by them at all times.

About the author:

Prastut Dalvi, is an Advocate in the Supreme Court of India. He currently practices in the chambers of Mr. Sunil Fernandes, Advocate-On-Record, Supreme Court of India]

Competing Interest: I was involved in assisting the case. No other competing interests to declare.

1Petition filed in Court of law to protect the rights/ interest of public at large.

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