Apart from its medical challenge, Covid-19 has also focused spotlight on the legalities of actions being taken to deal with it. While the high contagion makes social distancing and self-quarantine a civic responsibility, State ordained and State implemented mandatory quarantining raised several pertinent legal issues.
Worldwide, quarantine protocols are being enforced with greater seriousness than ever before. Italy, currently facing the brunt of COVID-19 has started imposing penal action for jumping quarantine. It has announced that if individuals facing symptoms like fever, cough, cold etc. do not self-isolate they would be liable to be charged with attempted murder (akin to Section 307 of Indian Penal Code “IPC”). In online discussion forums on social media, this punishment is being compared with the punishment meted out to HIV positive individuals who pass it onto unsuspecting others.
- State ordained and State implemented mandatory quarantining raises several pertinent legal issues.
- It would also be advisable for local administration to issue formal quarantine orders to those who have been in close contact with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19.
- Endangering the life of fellow citizens due to the non-adherence of the 14-day quarantine protocols is an act which has both mens rea (guilty mind) and actus rea (guilty act) since the high contagion of COVID-19 would undoubtedly put fellow citizens at risk.
- The following legal provisions can be invoked against those who evade quarantine: Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act; Section 269 of the IPC that punishes ‘Negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life’; and Section 270 of the IPC which punishes ‘Malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life’.
- Law enforcement agencies with the assistance of civic administration should proactively use the power of law to enforce this.
How India and Other Countries Are Dealing with Coronavirus Suspects
In the United Kingdom, as per the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020, failure to comply is deemed a criminal offence and liable to a fine of as much as 1000 pounds and imprisonment if the penalty is not paid. In USA too, depending on the state and local statutes, individuals can face fines, criminal charges, and even jail-time for breaking quarantines. Singapore and Hong Kong too are hauling up those accused of misleading authorities and breaking travel restrictions.
Various states in Australia have prescribed penalties such as fine of A$ 2,000-20,000 or six months’ prison if the 14-day quarantine rule is not complied with. The State of Victoria has gone one step ahead as per the direction issued by their Chief Health Officer under the Public Health & Wellbeing Act 2008 and set out a penalty of A$ 100,000 for companies for non-compliance of quarantine protocols.
The Indian government is already marking people entering India at the airports with quarantine date stamps. It would also be advisable for local administration to issue formal quarantine orders to those who have been in close contact with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19. In United States, there have been challenges to quarantine orders in relation to other epidemics but in cases like COVID-19 with a high contagion, public safety would necessarily have to take precedence over personal liberty.
Start Legal Action Against the Coronavirus Quarantine Protocol Breakers
Is criminal action justified against people breaking quarantine protocols? A loud yes. Endangering the life of fellow citizens due to the non-adherence of the 14-day quarantine protocols is an act which has both mens rea (guilty mind) and actus rea (guilty act) since the high contagion of COVID-19 would undoubtedly put fellow citizens at risk. The elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions are at even greater risks. The same is corroborated by statistics.
FIR’s should be registered and non-complying citizens be charged under the relevant provisions of the IPC read with Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act prescribes the penalty for non-compliance of executive orders in relation to containing epidemic diseases which is that of having committed an offence punishable under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code—imprisonment of upto 6 months or fine upto Rs 1000 or both.
Section 269 of the IPC punishes ‘Negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life’ and the same is punishable with imprisonment of upto 6 months, or fine, or both. One level above this is Section 270 of the IPC which punishes ‘Malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life’ and the same is punishable with imprisonment of upto two years, or fine, or both. Section 269 would be applicable in cases of persons returning from overseas and not following the 14-day self-quarantine protocol and Section 270 in cases where the person who has been in contact with a COVID-19 positive individual is aware of the same and yet endangers the life of fellow citizens.
Quarantine Facilities May Not be in Great Shape But Endangering Others by Escaping is a Strict No
Recently there has been a glaring case in the public domain of violation of the quarantine protocol – the son of a prominent IAS officer from West Bengal – gallivanting around a mall while he should have been in quarantine. Rightly the Chief Minister expressed her displeasure forcefully. COVID-19 is indeed a great leveler and just like all are supposed to be equal before law, the rules of quarantine have to apply equally to all. In his recent address to the nation, the Prime Minister too has stressed on our duty towards fellow citizens, even exhorting us to eschew public contact through a junta-curfew.
The Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor too, is in the doghouse for skipping the mandatory screenings at the airport and subsequently endangering the lives of fellow citizens including a sitting Member of Parliament. There are reports of cases in various states where after landing at airports people have disappeared from the radar without medical checks. This is a serious safety hazard. Notwithstanding the conditions of quarantine facilities, willfully endangering lives of fellow citizens should be a criminal act and dealt with severely. Law enforcement agencies with the assistance of civic administration should proactively use the power of law to enforce this.
(Shlok Chandra is a lawyer who serves as Senior Panel Counsel, Union of India and Junior Standing Counsel, Income Tax Department. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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