New health law draft for Pandemics

Wednesday March 23, 2022 at 2:04 pm

COVID-19 pandemic is revolutionizing the health sector, and the government of India is paying renewed attention to the industry. Now a draft of the new health law is being prepared. It provides for creating what will be called public health cadres at national and state levels and will establish a four-tier health administration system. Under this proposed law, the four-tier health administrative system will have “well-defined” powers for all levels. The law also defines a lockdown. Various officials from the Government of India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and those from other related Government departments have now started finalizing provisions of this draft Bill.

Once the draft bill is ready, it will be placed in the public domain for public scrutiny and consultation before it finally gets sent to the Government of India’s Cabinet. As the third Covid wave ebbs across the country, the new bill, also called National Public Health Bill, will likely be introduced in the coming Monsoon Session of Parliament.

The proposed National Public Health Bill has been under work since 2017, and it is set to replace the 125-year-old Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 once it gets enacted. It will also cover different public health emergencies caused by such threats as natural disasters,  bioterrorism, chemical, and nuclear attacks, or accidents.

The four-tier health administration architecture will have “multisectoral” public health authorities at national, state, district, and block levels. They will have “well-defined” powers and functions meant to deal with “public health emergencies.”

While the national public health authority under the new is proposed to be headed by the Government of India’s Health Ministry, health ministers will chair it at the state level. District Collectors will be responsible for the district tier, and as for the block units, they will be headed by their respective Block Medical Officers or Medical Superintendents. These authorities will be powered to take measures to prevent both non-communicable diseases and emerging infectious diseases.

The proposed law will deal with new, updated, scientific and comprehensive provisions on various aspects like surveillance, disease notification, and public health emergencies that arise from such threats as epidemics, disasters, and bioterrorism. The existing Epidemic Diseases Act has been proven inadequate and lacks provisions for managing threats like Covid-19. The Disaster Management Act of 2005 proved far more helpful, but the new law will be able to reinforce the fortification against any similar future threats in a much better way.

The draft Bill will also define various measures, including isolation, quarantine, and lockdown – concepts that have entered public consciousness after being extensively invoked by the authorities and experts, including the Central and state governments for pandemic management.

The proposed law defines a lockdown as a “restriction with certain conditions or complete prohibition of running any form of transport” on roads as well as inland water.

The definition of a lockdown will cover various “restrictions” on the movement or gathering of persons in both public and private places. It will also include “prohibiting or restricting” the work, including in places like factories, plants, mining, construction, Educational institutions, market places, or offices.

The draft bill also lays down several situations where the government can declare such a “public health emergency.” These include bioterrorism; the appearance of a dangerous infectious agent or biological toxin, a chemical attack, a natural disaster, or an accident such as a release of chemicals; a nuclear accident, or an attack.

In 2017, the Health Ministry of India had released the draft of the Public Health (Prevention, Control, and Management of Epidemics, Bio-terrorism, and Disasters) Act, 2017. In September 2020, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, the Union Health Minister back then, announced in Parliament that a new national public health law was in the works.